UK's reputation could be 'damaged beyond repair' by DFID merger

Sarah Champion, member of Parliament and chair of the International Development Committee in the U.K. Photo by: Nick Ansell / PA Images via Reuters

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s reputation could be “damaged beyond repair” by the merger of the Department for International Development into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the chair of the parliamentary watchdog for aid has warned.

NGOs accuse government of misrepresenting DFID merger talks

Bond, which represents 400 aid NGOs, says the government must commit to meaningful engagement with the sector about the impending merger.

Sarah Champion, a member of Parliament who heads the cross-party International Development Committee, made the comments as the IDC published a scathing review of the government’s “impulsive” merger decision.

The report warns the merger could be expensive and disruptive and lead to a loss of expertise, which may have a knock-on effect on the country’s influence. It calls for the government to set out an evidence-led rationale for the merger, including how its costs will be justified.

IDC’s own future also hangs in the balance, having been threatened with closure following the decision. Its work on a report about the effectiveness of U.K. aid was started before the decision was taken and, in its interim findings, recommended retaining DFID as an independent department just days before the merger was announced. The final report is strongly critical of the decision.

“We have now come to the end of our committee’s deep dive into how effective U.K. aid is. Our evidence shows DFID has a glowing reputation overseas, its expertise envied and its aid programs delivering a lifeline for many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. DFID gives the U.K. considerable international standing and is something we should all be proud of,” Champion said.

She continued: “It is deeply disappointing that the government failed to recognize these strengths as it made its impulsive move to have the FCO swallow up DFID. Now we are on the brink of this expertise being lost and our international reputation being damaged beyond repair.”

“The fact that there was no consultation, seemingly no evidence as to why this is a good idea, really lets down the communities that U.K. aid is there to support.”

— Sarah Champion, chair, International Development Committee

The timing of the merger’s announcement — made unexpectedly by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month — was branded “extremely disappointing” by the report, because it took place before the government’s forthcoming integrated review of international policy — which would have provided evidence on the issue — and amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It also highlighted that consultation with NGOs, and with FCO and DFID staff members, had seemingly not taken place, despite the claims of the government. The merger’s rationale suffered from a “lack of clarity,” the report said, and the “justification for the merger — foreign policy alignment — does not itself provide a compelling case for the proposed change.”

The report highlighted four possible models for a merger, as identified by Nilima Gulrajani, an expert at the Overseas Development Institute think tank, and said “there is no evidence that the Government considered the merits of these alternative governance models for administering aid” or assessed the potential impact on the poorest before deciding on the merger.

The vision for the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office seems to match “model 1,” the report said, in which “international development is integrated within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that takes the lead and is responsible for policy and implementation.”

The report said, “It is not clear why the Government chose the departmental reorganisation option when other alternatives were available.”

Champion added: “The fact that there was no consultation, seemingly no evidence as to why this is a good idea, really lets down the communities that U.K. aid is there to support. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office now has an enormous remit, and I sincerely hope development is not sidelined.”

The recommendations made by the report include the continuation of poverty reduction as a central aspect of the U.K. government’s international policy, the appointment of a Cabinet-level minister for development, and all FCDO programming to be rated green/amber by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact within a year.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process.