U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson could follow through on his earlier calls to merge DFID and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Photo by: REUTERS

LONDON — More than 100 charities have warned that the United Kingdom risks “turning its back on the world” if the Department for International Development is scrapped and rolled back into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

Civil society groups fear that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson could follow through on his earlier calls to merge DFID and FCO now that he has won a Conservative majority.

Johnson previously said the U.K.'s current aid set-up creates “inevitable waste,” as money is “shoved out of the door.” He has called for Britain’s £14 billion ($18 billion) aid budget to come under the foreign secretary. But U.K. NGOs warned in a shared statement this week that it “would risk dismantling the U.K.’s leadership on international development and humanitarian aid.”

If the merger goes ahead, it would not be the first country to undergo such a shift. Devex spoke to experts in Canada, Australia, and Norway, where aid agencies have already been merged with their foreign affairs ministries, to find out what impact it had.

Canada

The Canadian International Development Agency merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to become Global Affairs Canada in 2013. As in the U.K., critics at the time feared development interests would be sidelined in favor of commerce and foreign policy objectives.

To some, that fear has been realized. Canada’s overall ranking in the Commitment to Development Index — an initiative of the Center for Global Development that looks at how donors perform on development work across the whole of government — dropped from 11 before the merger in 2012 to 17 in 2018.

“It’s not clear that there have been any advantages … I have yet to meet anybody who thinks it has worked out well.”

— Stephen Brown, professor of political science, University of Ottawa  

One of the purported benefits of integrating departments is increased efficiency. Research by Nilima Gulrajani — a senior fellow at the London-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute, who looked at mergers in Canada, Australia, and Norway — found that between 2013 and 2015, administrative costs in Global Affairs Canada fell from 5.2% to 4.6% of official development assistance.

However, Gulrajani believes the savings were likely driven by other factors, such as pre-planned staffing changes. “We suggest the savings didn’t materialize from the merger itself,” she said.

Stephen Brown, a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa who edited a book on CIDA’s effectiveness, agrees: “It’s not clear that there have been any advantages” of the merger, he told Devex. “I have yet to meet anybody who thinks it has worked out well.”

Rather than increasing efficiency, “it’s forced together different bureaucratic cultures and career paths, making individuals more generalist than specialist,” Brown said.

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Canada’s international policy isn’t more coherent either, he added — another reason that is often floated for uniting development and foreign policy departments. For example, Canada has made much of its feminist foreign aid policy, but that agenda isn’t echoed in the country’s broader foreign policy work.

“It’s hard to work out how our foreign policy is feminist ... so that doesn’t point to greater policy coherence,” Brown argued.

The implicit political motivation for the merger in Canada was a desire for greater control over the development program. “It’s generally understood in Ottawa circles that was part of the reasoning,” Brown said.

Has it occurred? “It’s hard to say. Even before the merger, CIDA had lost a lot of autonomy. Canadian aid was already subjected to foreign policy even before the merger and it continues to be now,” he said.

Australia

In 2013, one of the first acts of a new conservative government in Australia was to fold its standalone aid agency AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Again, the move was seen as largely politically motivated, explained Ashlee Betteridge, manager at the Development Policy Centre. “There was some belief that AusAID was becoming too big for its boots, so to speak.”

“One of the immediate negative impacts for the government aid program was an exodus of senior-level aid expertise. The aid program is still recovering from this many years later.”

— Ashlee Betteridge, manager, Development Policy Centre

Some researchers see the current environment in the U.K. as similar to what Australia was experiencing at the time, with references to the need to spend aid “in the national interest” — something that has been a prolific rhetoric of British Conservative politicians in recent times, although it was noticeably absent from the party’s election manifesto.

But while rumors of a U.K. merger have been circulating for some time, Australia’s merger was announced with no notice and took everyone by surprise, Australian NGOs have said.

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Five years on from the merger of AusAID and DFAT, the results are mixed — but there is a general recognition that a different aid program model is required.

“There was no workforce planning or consideration of the impact,” Betteridge said — and “there was a significant culture clash when the merger first happened, which still simmers away to some extent.”

“One of the immediate negative impacts for the government aid program was an exodus of senior-level aid expertise. The aid program is still recovering from this many years later,” she said.

The loss of expertise has markedly impacted the capability of Australian aid, according to Richard Moore, a principal strategist with consulting company Positive Influence, who conducted an independent review of the AusAID-DFAT merger this year.

The merger resulted in a loss of strategic vision for the role and use of aid, worse performing programs, less transparency, weaker evaluation capacity, and a devaluing of development skills and knowledge within the broader department, his report found.

In addition, the merger came alongside cuts to the aid budget, which observers say have damaged Australia’s international standing as a donor. The U.K.’s aid budget, meanwhile, is legally ring-fenced at 0.7% of gross national income — something the Conservative Party reiterated its support for in its manifesto.

“A merger without such severe cuts to the aid program could be a different story,” Betteridge said.

“A merger without such severe cuts to the aid program could be a different story.”

— Betteridge

Norway

In 2014, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation — which had traditionally operated at arm’s length from government — was integrated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, giving the Norwegian minister of development closer control over its operations.

Norway is the 10th largest donor country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and remains the third largest donor in proportion to its economic size.

“Norway has a hybrid model, with a semi-autonomous NORAD,” explained Martin Samuelsen, director at KPMG's International Development Advisory Services. This model means focus can shift as new ministers come and go.

“If we had a strong and independent NORAD, we might see greater long-term thinking, rather than short-sighted decisions based on shifting politicians’ preferences,” he said.

But “we also don’t have the opposite model of full integration. To me, that model has the advantage that you can avoid overlap,” Samuelsen explained. As a result, the hybrid model has disadvantages from both sides. It “would benefit from moving towards either a clearer separation of duties, or full integration,” he said.

On the other hand, some argue that NORAD’s integration into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has given development greater political visibility. It has also come alongside a growing aid budget, which has enabled Norway to retain its strong reputation as an aid actor internationally.

Motivations are key

“The determining factor is the political will to keep development interests separate from national self-interests.”

— Stephen Brown, professor of political science, University of Ottawa  

All the experts agreed that the political motivation for merging departments is the most important factor in determining the impact on development.

In Australia, the merger went hand-in-hand with budget cuts. “Adequate resourcing and a commitment to aid and development from government, no matter the shape of the agency or department, is crucial,” Betteridge said.

Brown agrees. “The determining factor is the political will to keep development interests separate from national self-interests,” he said.

In the U.K., Prime Minister Johnson has said that DFID should adhere “much better with U.K. political and commercial objectives.” And, as in some other countries that have seen a merger, DFID’s influence over the aid budget has already weakened in recent years.

Around 30% of the U.K.’s ODA is now spent by departments outside DFID, which has resulted in less money going to the world’s poorest people, according to a recent report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Reports also say the approach has led to reduced transparency and coherence of U.K. aid, with funds being spent with less of a focus on poverty reduction and without DFID expertise.

“It would mark a sad acceleration of the decline that has already begun in British leadership in development circles.”

— Brown

Ian Mitchell, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, points out that major development actors such as the United States, Germany, and France have maintained separate development ministries or implementation agencies, which should provide an example to the U.K. as a major donor.

Samuelsen agreed that “at the moment, a lot of other development agencies look to DFID as a model way of doing things.” With a merger, “that could be lost,” he said.

“My first thought was that it would be a terrible mistake,” Brown argued. "But if it's what the new government wants to do, they will find ways to do it — a merger would only make it easier," he said.

“It saddens me to see that DFID, which was considered one of the best aid agencies in the world, if not the best, will be subjected to additional pressures to promote British interests, rather than the interests of developing countries. It would mark a sad acceleration of the decline that has already begun in British leadership in development circles,” Brown said.

About the author

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    Abby Young-Powell

    Abby Young-Powell is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor based in Berlin. She covers a range of topics for publications including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and Deutsche Welle. Before working freelance, she was deputy editor of Guardian Students, part of the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. She is also a fellow of the International Journalists' Programme, after working at Die Tageszeitung in Germany.