LONDON — Despite fears that the U.K. Department for International Development could be merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office under a new prime minister, aid chief Rory Stewart has predicted that scenario is unlikely — but warned the department could face a “reorganization” that sees it brought under greater FCO control.
The DFID chief — who has only been in the role since last month — also said he expects to be out of a job in four weeks’ time after vowing not to serve in a cabinet under Boris Johnson.
Johnson looks likely to beat off competition from Jeremy Hunt to become the U.K.’s next Conservative leader by the end of July. Stewart himself was knocked out of the leadership contest last week.
Addressing members of the parliamentary International Development Committee on Wednesday, Stewart said that both leadership contenders appear “committed” to the U.K. target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid, and he doubted DFID would be completely scrapped or merged with another department — even by Johnson, who threatened the move earlier this year.
But Stewart warned: “There’s been talk from both candidates about reorganization. My assumption is that this is a reorganization in which there would remain a department and secretary of state but with more influence perhaps exercised by the foreign secretary.”
Stewart’s prediction has worried members of the aid community who have long expressed concerns about what a Johnson premiership could mean for DFID. They argue that FCO has a poor track record when it comes to spending aid money effectively and transparently, whereas DFID has performed consistently well across a series of reports.
Since 2015, an increasing proportion of U.K. aid money has been taken away from DFID and handed to other departments, including FCO, to be spent across government.
Jesse Griffiths, head of development strategy and finance at the Overseas Development Institute, said that giving FCO greater control of the aid budget would be a “mistake.”
“Spending aid to fight global poverty is both important in itself and in our long-term national interest. Shifting the focus of aid towards short-term foreign policy wins would therefore be a mistake,” he said.
FCO has suffered major budget cuts in recent years and has a “legitimate claim” to additional resources, added Ian Mitchell, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development in Europe — but taking over DFID is not the way to do it.
“There seems to be a false premise that, if DFID is overseen by the FCO, this will somehow mean more resources for the FCO. That isn’t the case and would likely just undermine the U.K.’s international reputation and effectiveness,” he told Devex.
Stewart said that if he was “lucky enough to be reappointed” as secretary of state for international development, he would double DFID’s spending on climate and the environment to £2 billion ($2.5 billion) and hire more full-time staff and experts to shift DFID’s focus to “people and quality.”
He said that most of the cash to pay for the proposed changes could be raised without cutting programs since the U.K. aid budget, which is tied to gross national income, is likely to grow, even if modestly.
He also floated the idea of cutting some funding to multilateral organizations, such as the World Bank.