The merger of the Foreign Office and DFID has damaged Britain's soft power. It's time to reverse it

Keir Starmer’s pledge to recreate a separate department for international development is a welcome step, write two former diplomatic chiefs

July 26, 2022
Photo:  SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, created in 2020 by the forced marriage between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID), clearly isn’t working. Britain’s soft power has been damaged by no longer having a recognised global champion in development policy. The department has lost many of its aid experts and has struggled to articulate a coherent set of priorities. 

We therefore welcome the fact that Keir Starmer has opened up the debate about how to improve matters, and his confirmation last week that Labour would, if elected, recreate a separate DFID. 

There are good reasons why France, Germany, the US and Japan have always kept their diplomatic and development operations distinct. Their priorities can be different, and it helps the clarity of political debate to have senior ministerial advocates for each. In addition, some of the qualities needed in diplomacy—relationship-building, influencing and negotiating skills—are different to those essential in development organisations, where managing money, technical expertise and project management skills are what counts. 

The detail of any new arrangements also matters. The friction created by separating out the two functions again would be considerable and the result would have to be worth the effort. We believe there would be real benefits from having once again two secretaries of state, two permanent secretaries, separate budgets and separate accountability to parliament. However, it is not just a question of stripping the development functions out of the merged department.

First, Britain post-Brexit needs a strong, well-funded FCO to provide leadership in government on the opportunities and risks in a world more unstable and unpredictable than at any time since the Second World War. In our view, part of the motive for the FCO-DFID merger was to find more money for foreign policy priorities out of the aid budget—which was then slashed in early 2020. Successive governments were wrong to under-resource diplomacy and it is vital that any de-merger doers not plunge the FCO back into penury. Britain faces an uphill battle in rebuilding our international reputation after the years of chaos and confusion over leaving the EU. Any re-organisation of government should leave the FCO with the budget it needs to meet the ambition set out in the government’s 2021 Integrated Review. 

Second, separate departments will be more effective if they work in closer partnership than in the past. They should retain much of the same plumbing. Sharing premises overseas, IT, transport and other support functions, as well as collaborative processes for strategy and objective setting can result in a structure producing more than the sum of its parts. 

Third, the National Security Council (NSC) is the right structure to ensure effective coordination of all aspects of the government’s international policies. David Cameron and Theresa May used it regularly as a forum for debate and decision. As a full member of the NSC, the DFID Secretary of State was able to ensure that the humanitarian and development aspects were given full consideration in setting the government’s national security strategy. Under Boris Johnson, the NSC seems to have been used much less systematically. The recently-revealed instructions from the Treasury for departments to immediately suspend all “non-essential” development spending is exactly the sort of decision which should have been subject to a full debate in an NSC, including a separate development minister.

We would therefore like to see a clear commitment to a well-functioning NSC as part of a wider reform of the governance of foreign and development policy. 

Alongside the structures, Labour needs to say more about its policy intentions and how it will rebuild alliances. The development messages so far have been positive: climate, human rights, more help for women and girls, global health, Africa, better engagement with conflict-affected countries and humanitarian response are all to be prioritised. But the detail is lacking.

Clarity is also needed on aid resources: what is the plan for getting back to the 0.7 per cent commitment? Important allies are voicing public frustration now about the effect of the drastic aid cuts in 2020. Samantha Power, the widely respected Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, had a message for Britain in a major speech last week on the global food crisis: “Some countries that stepped up before have provided only 8 per cent of what they contributed five years ago to the humanitarian response in the Horn [of Africa].”

It would take time to build a new DFID as Britain’s development champion, alongside a strong and confident Foreign Office. But it would be a major step in restoring Britain’s role and reputation in the world.