A DFID worker checks supplies bound for the Philippines. Photo by: Sgt Ralph Merry ABIPP RAF / © Crown Copyright

So it’s back to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office for the Department for International Development.

Born of scandal in 1997, U.K. development assistance was previously run by the Overseas Development Administration, a subsidiary of the FCO. The need to create a separate, Cabinet-level department for overseas aid was a Labour Party commitment — a bid to distance aid from other government economic interests, particularly the raw commercial interests that lay at the heart of the Pergau Dam affair.

Opinion: On the abolition of DFID

"Boris Johnson has decided to dismantle one of the most effective development organizations and subject it to the consideration of short-term British interests," writes Clare Short, the former leader of DFID, in this op-ed.

A few days after Labour’s triumphalist success in the May 1997 election, Clare Short — DFID’s first secretary of state — did the usual inaugural appearance in front of staff. The buzz of expectation was palpable. The sense was of a grand fresh start, the chance to genuinely conceive of development assistance as having global purpose, not as national almsgiving — often, with barely concealed ulterior motives.

Short wanted the department to get itself at the forefront of development, not aid administration.

Projects that simply provided services to low-income communities were certainly bringing benefits to those people receiving the assistance, but her point was that we would be doing that forever without changing the broader system.

Instead of devoting our energies to essentially substituting for a country’s inability to provide services to its people, Short saw the role of a development agency as sitting at the top table with the country’s policymakers. Instead of helping people in a few districts get access to better health, Short aimed the department’s work at changing the entire health system to benefit everyone.

She also spent much effort in the early years trying to reconfigure the approaches of other departments in ways that would assist global development, not hinder it, such as trade and agricultural barriers.

These were simple shifts of perspective but ones that had huge implications. For one, on a personal note, it meant thinking about corruption — I was appointed as DFID’s first anti-corruption coordinator. In the old days, official development assistance could run its projects pretty well immunized from local systems and their weaknesses. Under Short’s vision of contributing aid to national budgets, you now had to worry about those systems.

DFID gained a cherished reputation for being nimble, flexible, responsive. Short remains, at six years, the longest-serving DFID secretary of state. Since her departure in 2003, the average tenure of her 10 successors has been a little over a year and a half.

Still, for some time after, DFID helped to drive global development thinking. By 2006, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development depicted DFID as “seen by many aid practitioners and donors as one of the bilateral models for today’s evolving world of development co-operation,” benefitting from a clear mandate, an ambitious commitment, and a strong strategic approach. “DFID has gone through a ‘golden age’ of growth and achievement since 1997,” it stated.

From this high-water mark, two pivotal turns shaped the latter years and the gradual weakening of DFID’s foundations. The first was an antipathy within Whitehall toward DFID’s growing stature. Its early years had seen the development budget grow, seemingly without limit, in a truly enlightened age when the scale of the political ambition was matched by a willingness to find the resources. From being a relatively low-profile operator in the Whitehall game, DFID began to be the target of envy from others.

By its end, DFID was smothered in process, less certain of itself, encumbered rather than invigorating.

Ambassadors and high commissioners particularly seemed to resent the apparent largesse coming into their countries but outside their control. Anti-DFID media stories became more prominent, many presumably deriving from irked diplomats who saw DFID as having become too big for its boots.

The new department on the block came in for a collective kicking. That prepared the ground for the second existential challenge: the consequences of the global economic crisis of 2008-09. At  a time when most other departments were losing up to 40% of their budgets and staff, the protection of the aid budget — even before it was ringfenced by law some years later — intensified the animosity toward DFID.

this led to two trends that lured DFID quietly into its fatal cul-de-sac: first, the loss of its original dynamism and flexibility, through the tyranny of “results” over “development,” and second, the leeching away of DFID’s primacy for aid disbursement.

The 2010 coalition government saw a need to respond to the strong public antipathy toward overseas spending amid domestic austerity. It launched a back-to-basics approach — arguably returning overseas development to its pre-DFID days — focusing on visible delivery on the ground and away from the more abstract developmental and institution-building work. We know that is critical for long-term sustainable development, but the optics demanded a concentration on the tangible — fund the bed nets, don’t repair the underlying system.

This had the effect of reducing attention on anything that couldn’t easily be measured or a change that couldn’t quickly be brought about. “Results” were essential if public tolerance for aid spending was to be maintained, and the quick measuring of results became a critical success factor. DFID turned to shorter-term mindsets, often pursuing the symptoms of problems rather than the roots. Eyes were lowered, ambitions were curtailed.

Evermore complex measuring methods were introduced, with the apparent logic being that the more numbers were collected, the more real the achievement could be made out to be. As all recipients of DFID funding will testify, it led to the logical framework transforming from a single page — the original theory being that one should be able to see the inherent logic of the whole at a glance — to a tortuous, multipage indicator register of baffling complexity. The notorious business case model also created exponential demands, and subsequent additional processes for undertaking due diligence, supply chain mapping, and safeguarding checks — all the result of single episodes — each added to the layers of bureaucracy.

By its end, DFID was smothered in process, less certain of itself, encumbered rather than invigorating. Those undefensive early days, when spontaneity, responsiveness, flexibility, and risk-taking allowed qualified staff to excel in a noble purpose, ended up with an office that was ponderous, slow, less visible internationally, and far less a leader than it used to be.

The Treasury’s trick for squaring the circle on keeping the increase in aid while meeting the complaints of other departments suffering from budget losses was inflicted with quiet subtlety. It could keep the commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid but change its allocation among departments so that their budgets were somewhat compensated with ODA instead of regular government funds.

The gradual reallocation of ODA to other departments, for whom poverty reduction overseas was far less central, has been relentless, particularly with the creation of multibillion-pound cross-government funds like the Prosperity Fund. From being responsible for something close to 90% of U.K. ODA a decade ago, DFID’s share is now down to around 75%.

Through this maneuver, the poverty focus of aid has already been quietly softened in recent years. Its malleability will now be tested to the limit under the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Every survey of British public perceptions of aid reveals that it is most commonly thought to consist largely of humanitarian activity after a disaster or of physical building — of water pumps or rural health centers.

DFID’s venture into the more abstract realm of development, the internal systems that need to operate properly, was a vital shift, asking for greater understanding of what development is about and greater patience for the results.

Its death was a long time coming, an inevitable outcome of the trends since 2010 — the increasing toxicity of aid, the weight of justification required to get any activity moving, and the dilution of focus from causes to symptoms.

The sad part is that this has come not from any cogent rethinking of the problem but from less high-minded and more shortsighted calculations. The decision to abolish DFID came in advance of, not as a result of, the strategic foreign policy review due later this year.

For a short while, DFID lifted the U.K.’s eyes above pure national interest and showed the best ambitions for the greater good. It never lost sight of its main constituency — the poorest communities — even if, by the end, it had become horribly convoluted in how to support them. For that fixity of vision, I cherish all the years I served there.

This is an adapted version of a post originally published by the author on LinkedIn.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Phil Mason

    Phil Mason served in the U.K.'s Overseas Development Administration, and later the Department for International Development, from 1988 until retiring in March 2019. His final role, between 2000 and his departure, was as senior anti-corruption adviser. At the time of Pergau, he was the department’s liaison officer with the National Audit Office, which first brought the Pergau decision to public light.