Merging Dfid into the Foreign Office will distract diplomats, befuddle development officers and provides no substitute for hard and overdue thinking about Britain’s place in the worldby Rory Stewart / June 16, 2020 / Leave a comment
There are many reasons to be concerned about the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. But the solution is not, as the government proposes, to merge the two.
The Foreign Office is in crisis. The UK spends on our core diplomatic staff half of what we spend on the winter fuel payments for pensioners, and half of what the French spend on their Foreign Service. When I joined the Foreign Office in 1995 there were 25 UK-based diplomatic staff in Zambia—there are now two. Ambassadors increasingly lack the small budgets needed to maintain goodwill abroad.
But the key problem for the Foreign Office is not that it has lost control of international development. The problem is that it has also lost control of international trade, exit from the European Union, intelligence and national security policy—and in many ways of UK foreign policy itself. Departments and agencies which used to report directly to Foreign Office ministers, now hardly keep the ministerial teams abreast of their work, and have budgets larger than the Foreign Office itself. The Foreign Office is no longer staffed or funded to act as a global power.
Inevitably, the Foreign Office looks enviously at its colleagues from the Department for International Development with their £14bn-a-year budget—more than five times larger than that of the FCO itself. Diplomats sometimes imagine that if they were in charge they would be able to spend the money in a way that was more visible and popular (perhaps, in their minds, building large infrastructure with UK flags on it, rather than contributing almost anonymously to, say, a pooled World Bank fund for a local school system).
They imagine being able to spend the money to win friends in wealthier countries such as Vietnam or Turkey—rather than focusing on less powerful places like Malawi. They might like to see more of the money used in ways that could support British companies and British trade deals. And perhaps even cross-subsidise peace-keeping troops or British naval vessels with outlays on humanitarian tasks.
But the problem is not the existence of DfiD—countries need a department for overseas aid and DfiD is a highly professional and well-respected example. The problem is…