DFID’s merger with the Foreign Office: The potential impact on the development sector

DFID’s merger with the Foreign Office: The potential impact on the development sector

 by Daniel Ojabo – DevelopmentAid Nigeria Journalist

Twenty-seven years after the Pergau Dam scandal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to remerge the UK’s foreign policy and foreign aid departments signals a return to the aid-for-trade era.

In a bid align Britain’s foreign aid with its foreign policy, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) will now form the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The merger will take effect in September.

Spun out of the FCO in 1997, DFID was set up to create sustainable growth and eradicate global poverty. Today, DFID is the third-best development agency in the world, according to the independent aid transparency index. From alleviating poverty to tackling Ebola to educating millions of children to improving public health outcomes and the rights of women, DFID has set the international standard for non-governmental agencies.

Stripping DFID of its independence has sparked widespread concern amongst aid experts. Several nonprofit organizations, including UNICEF, Oxfam, and Save the Children have warned that this merger could undermine Britain’s global influence.

In a recent press release, Sacha Deshmukh, who leads UNICEF UK, said: “Merging DFID with the FCO risks diminishing the UK’s international standing at a time of global crisis.”

Many in the UK development sector fear that the merger could lead to devastating consequences, especially in poorer counties. Diverting attention away from poverty eradication may become more likely – plunging some of the most marginalized communities deeper into poverty. Gayle Smith, who leads ONE Campaign, a nonprofit organization campaigning to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030, described the abolition of DFID as “a dangerous step backwards,”, in a Twitter post.

The UK is one of the very few nations that have consistently met the United Nations’ spending target on foreign aid – 0.7% of gross national income. In 2019, DFID accounted for 73% of the £15 billion UK aid spending, according to official statistics. Africa received the largest share (56%) of DFID’s region-specific expenditure in 2019.

Abolishing DFID is detrimental to the poor and the most vulnerable – and marks the culmination of a slow drain on the department’s influence. Of course, the merger may attract some short-term efficiency gains; however, the UK could lose its reputation as a world leader in international development.

Three of Mr. Johnson’s predecessors have criticized the merger. In a Twitter post, former PM David Cameron branded the decision to merge both departments as ‘’a mistake’’ – a sentiment echoed by his predecessors, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. There is no justifiable rationale for this merger, especially now, in the middle of a global pandemic.

Other key players in the international development space – the US, France, and Germany – have sustained separate diplomacy and development agencies. Integrating foreign policy interests with foreign aid, by contrast, often has reputational impacts.

In 2013, Canada merged the Canadian International Development Agency with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Canada’s ranking on the Commitment to Development Index – which analyses how donors perform on development work across the whole of government – plummeted from 11 before the merger to 17 in 2018.

In Australia, standalone aid agency AusAID merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2013. This merger resulted in a loss of strategic vision for the role and use of aid; it also led to the exodus of several top-level aid experts, according to reports by the Development Policy Center, an international development think-tank. The aid program is still recovering from that politically motivated merger.

The 1994 Pergau incident, in which Britain acted unlawfully by using aid to ease the sale of arms, encapsulates the associated risks of going back to a failed model – one that lacks a clear-cut distinction between diplomacy and development. Tying aid – even loosely – to political interest, or even trade, could be catastrophic to international development aid goals.