Plans to merge the Department for International Department (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) appear to have been abandoned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson for now. The idea of a DFID/FCO merger has been debated numerous times since DFID’s separation from FCO in 1997, most recently resurfacing amidst the 2019 general elections and causing a stir among UK charities. Despite the merger being allegedly off the cards for the time being, rumours of a ‘compromise’ which would put the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, in control of both ministries has failed to ease many commentators and UK NGO staff.

Two ministries with different priorities

DFID is one of the few aid departments in the world that is not part of a foreign ministry. DFID’s mission is to lead the UK’s work to end extreme poverty and aim to build a safer, healthier, more prosperous world for people in developing countries and the UK.

Its priorities are centred on promoting global prosperity, strengthening global peace, security and government as well as resilience and response to crisis.

The role of the FCO differs in that it aims to promote British interests and global security through activities that “protect our people, project our influence and promote our prosperity”.

Its focus is primarily to safeguard UK national security, build UK prosperity and support British nationals around the world.

So whilst DFID’s focus is on development and aid, the FCO mostly prioritises national security.

Conflict of interest?

Presently, 30% of the UK’s £14bn annual aid budget is spent in departments outside of DFID and in cross-government funds such as the conflict, stability and security fund.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact has scrutinised this distribution of the aid budget, criticising the consequential growing focus on larger, middle-income countries and risking the principle of ‘leaving no behind’.

The differing priorities of DFID and FCO add to the list of growing concerns amid use of aid funds.

DFID’s inclusive approach to tackle the roots of poverty globally and ‘leave no one behind’ are feared to be at risk of being compromised by the FCO’s aim to protect and promote British political and strategic interests.

NGO officials in disagreement

 A significant number of NGO officials in the sector have expressed their disagreement with a DFID/FCO merger.

This includes senior representatives, such as the CEO of BOND, one of the leading UK networks for organisations working in international development.

 “Any merger of the FCO and DFID could mean UK aid will no longer be about helping those suffering the consequences [of] climate change, and supporting people trying to survive war and disease. UK aid could instead become a façade for UK foreign policy, commercial interests and political objectives.” –Stephanie Draper, BOND (CEO)

In December 2019, over 100 British charities, including Islamic Relief UK, Oxfam GB, and Tearfund, came together to protest the dissolution of DFID, proclaiming this decision would suggest Britain is “turning our backs on the world’s poorest people”.

Many experts are concerned this merger will result in development interests being overshadowed by commercial and foreign policy objectives.

They believe that in order to maintain the integrity of British aid work, it will be crucial for “the political will to keep development interests separate from national self-interests”. 

However, this contrasts with the assertions of PM Boris Johnson that the aid budget should be spent in Britain’s political, commercial and diplomatic interests.

Learning from other countries

The examples of Australia and Canada have been cited to demonstrate how merging the foreign and development departments weakens a country’s influence and the effectiveness of their aid.

The UK government is currently legally obliged to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid.

Following the mergers in Australia and Canada, the quantity of the aid budget in those countries dropped, resulting in a failure to meet their 0.7% target.

Observers fear that a similar trend is to be expected in the UK, and that the UK would fail to meet its obligation to spend 0.7% GNI on overseas aid, threatening its standing and the projects that depend on DFID’s funding.

Possible loss of specialised staff

Other concerns include a loss of in-house expertise.

Rather than strengthening the direction of aid, following a merger the different priorities of FCO and DFID would instead confuse the priorities of development assistance.

Staff would be required to take more generalist approaches due to the differing objectives of British development and British diplomacy and political interests – it is likely there would be a loss of specialist staff, as experienced in Australia.

In the words of Kevin Watkins, Save the Children (CEO):

“Save the Children is reliant on the excellence of both the Foreign Office and DFID, but they are effective because they have distinct skillsets, culture[s] and objectives. To merge them would damage the work of both. We can and should have an effective and well-resourced Foreign Office alongside an independent DFID.”

Experts have warned that with COP26, the major United Nations climate change summit, expected to take place in Glasgow next year, wasting time, money and resources on restructuring Whitehall would be “political suicide”.

Concerns over lack of transparency

Perhaps the largest fear revolves around a lack of transparency.

It can be traced back to the Pergau Dam scandal, where in 1994, aid for this project was declared unlawful at the UK high court.

At the time, UK aid was handled by a department of FCO, which operated under an ‘aid for trade and arms’ model.

To contrast, the independent DFID is recognised for its aid transparency and consistently ranks in the top five globally. On the other hand, the FCO ranks among the world’s worst. The present sharing of the aid budget between different departments has increased uncertainty about its use.

Lack of transparency and controversial uses revealed themselves in Australia where the aid budget was being used for in-country refugee costs following the merger.

We should not conflate development interests with other priorities

Despite PM Johnson’s enthusiasm for a DFID-FCO merger, its critics have raised valid concerns.

It is DFID’s independence that has contributed to its reputation, global influence and trust from donors and recipients alike.

Conflating development interests with British political and commercial interests not only puts the development of recipients at stake but also the reputation of the UK and the impact of its work. It’s time to put this issue to bed once and for all.

Written by Madiha Zeb Sadiq

Research and Development Assistant

Further Reading:

How to stop the Foreign Office gobbling up DFID

Alternatives to Aid: Mobilisation for Development