Merging the foreign office and Dfid wouldn't only hand over the aid budget from one of the world’s most respected aid deliverers to one of the least—it also causes problems for the prime ministerby Steve Bloomfield / February 12, 2020 / Leave a comment
It’s a seven-minute walk from the grand 19th century Gilbert Scott-designed Foreign and Commonwealth Office on King Charles Street to the less salubrious home of the Department for International Development on Whitehall, opposite a McDonalds and next door to a pub. The divide also exists in most countries in which the two government departments operate—they may be representing the same government, but they are often housed in separate buildings, or even in the same building but with different entrances.
The difference is not just geographical. The two departments often have different priorities; British national interests and the aid policies that are right for a developing nation are not always the same thing. When foreign office diplomats had responsibility for overseas development assistance—which ended in 1997 with the creation of Dfid—the former usually took precedence. The Pergau dam scandal in the 1990s—in which ministers approved more than £200m in aid against the advice of civil servants—was the most outrageous and high-profile example, but it was far from the exception. Separating the two departments was a way to recognise the often conflicting nature of their work.
But if the prime minister and foreign secretary get their way—and given they are the two most important people in British foreign policy it would be a surprise if they did not—then Britain’s rival international departments are about to merge.
Merge is actually the wrong word. This is a takeover by a foreign office that, at the top, has never come to terms with the removal of overseas development assistance (ODA) from its remit in 1997. Simon Macdonald, the current head of the foreign office, has made it clear to colleagues that he would welcome the return of Dfid. When I interviewed him in 2018, he emphasised the need for “clear leadership” in foreign policy.
That longing doesn’t necessarily exist further down the diplomatic chain. Diplomats in their 40s joined after the split—while they may have experienced Dfid and FCO staff butting against each other in the field, they have none of the rose-tinted memories of their seniors or aid staff obediently following orders from an ambassador.
The aid and development industry is, understandably, anxious. Dfid has had its issues over the past 22 years—at times it has been far too supportive of dictators and autocrats—but on the whole, British aid…