LONDON — The consultation process behind the United Kingdom’s integrated review of international policies failed to properly engage civil society and lacked transparency, according to development leaders.
The “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” — launched in February but paused between April and July because of the COVID-19 pandemic — has been branded the biggest such exercise since the end of the Cold War and will define the government’s vision for the country’s role in the world over the next decade.
Run by the Cabinet Office, it is intended to go “beyond the parameters of a traditional defence and security review by considering the totality of global opportunities and challenges the UK faces and determining how government should be structured, equipped, and mobilised to meet them,” according to a call for evidence.
Crucially for the development sector, it will chart a course for the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Its findings are due in the autumn — though no specific timeline has been released — along with a spending review expected around the same time.
Quietly released in mid-August and closed Friday, the call for evidence said, “Submissions focusing on the engagement of an increasing range of stakeholders ... are particularly welcome.” Government communications preceding the review emphasized the importance of external consultation, and development professionals hoped it would be a chance for input after the sudden and controversial decision to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there had been a "massive consultation" about merging DFID with FCO. Aid groups say if there was, nobody told them.
But many are now disappointed, saying the review has lacked a spirit of engagement. “It feels like it hasn’t lived up to the billing of a wide consultative process,” said Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy, and research at Bond, a network of U.K. development NGOs.
“There has been no formal, substantive engagement with Bond or our members. There’s certainly been bits and pieces happening around the place, but it’s quite difficult to get a sense of what that is and who has been consulted and not. … That’s a little bit disappointing,” he said.
“The process of the integrated review this year has been very poor,” agreed Richard Reeve, coordinator of Rethinking Security, a network of NGOs focused on peace building and security.
Consultation has been “significantly worse” than previous government security reviews, despite “belatedly” increasing engagement with civil society in the last two weeks, Reeve said. “However, because we have no timeline for the review, we don’t know whether this is going to be taken into serious consultation or whether it's an exercise that is happening … in parallel to the actual process,” he added.
Another expert who submitted evidence, speaking to Devex on condition of anonymity, said organizations were reliant on their preexisting contacts in government for input and described the process as “a bit pally-pally.” “It doesn’t feel like it's very open and clear. There hasn’t been much proactive outreach,” the expert said.
Some were surprised that the call for evidence was made so late in the process and kept open for under a month. Without proper consultation, “the government is going to be missing something in its analysis of its way of dealing with ... [foreign policy] challenges,” argued Lewis Brooks, U.K. policy and advocacy coordinator at Saferworld.
Starling echoed this sentiment. “Bond members have a huge range of experience on the ground in many of the countries that the FCDO will work in, and we often are present in places that even national governments don’t have access to, let alone the U.K. government,” he said.
“You can’t achieve the aims that they [the government] set out in the review ... unless you are seriously engaging with people in developing countries.”— Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy, and research, Bond
Others said there had been a lack of information and communication about the review. One staffer at a major NGO, who spoke anonymously to preserve relations with the government, said that they were often reliant on seeing what “select-committee chairs were tweeting about the letters they’d received” for information and that “there was a big chunk of time when even they weren’t getting communications on it.”
Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee, said it has not been much better for select committee chairs.
The government will also not be creating a public repository of the evidence it has received prior to the review’s publication. It is left to individual organizations to decide if they want to make their submissions public.
Some suspect the conclusions of the integrated review have already been decided by the government. “We believe the substance of the review has already been written,” Reeve said. An example frequently cited was the DFID-FCO merger, which many expected to be decided after the outcome of the review but instead happened before.
Outside of development, the review’s shortcomings are less apparent. “I think consultation and transparency is significantly better than in the past in relation to defense and foreign policy,” Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director‑general of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, told Devex.
But civil society engagement matters, according to Starling. “You can’t achieve the aims that they [the government] set out in the review — you can’t have a safer, healthier, more prosperous world — unless you are seriously engaging with people in developing countries, and not just governments but civil society,” he said. “I think it's absolutely essential that the views of a diverse range of groups … are represented in this review and going forwards into the FCDO.”
A U.K. government spokesperson said in a statement: “The Integrated Review process has been in-depth and consultative to help the UK define and strengthen our place in a changing world. The Government is engaging with experts and stakeholders, with an interest in our nation’s security and prosperity, and we have issued a Call for Evidence to hear a wide-range of views.”
“This will ensure that some of the best minds in the UK and beyond are feeding into the Review’s conclusions and challenging traditional Whitehall assumptions and thinking.”
Update, Sept. 14: This story was updated to include a government comment provided after publication.