It could create opportunities to improve both British aid and diplomacy if done properlyby Charlotte Powell / June 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
When Boris Johnson announced the merger of the Foreign Office and Department for International Development (Dfid) he said that he wanted to be more transactional with British aid and to align it more closely with his “Global Britain” agenda. But critics, including former International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, believe that dismantling Dfid will not solve the real problem facing the UK: that there is no confident vision for the UK and its role in the world. Questions about who Britain will trade with after the Brexit transition period ends, how it should position itself between its two traditional allies the EU and the US and how much it is willing to invest in projecting itself as a global power still remain unanswered. Furthermore, they fear that the merger will damage Britain’s brand as a world leader at delivering aid transparently.
Dfid is a highly professional and well-respected organisation. It was set up in recognition that British national aims can sometimes differ from those of a developing country. The department has had a good track record at spending money on aid, according to the aid watchdog the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) and has its own Cabinet-level minister who can represent development interests at the National Security Council meetings chaired by the prime minister.
However, if it is managed properly the merger does create opportunities to improve the way foreign policy is delivered. For example, it could help make sure embassy activity in-country is properly co-ordinated, that programming is better informed by political expertise and that the overall quality of programme management—particularly the £1.2bn FCO-administered Conflict Stability and Security fund (CSSF)—is improved. All of this is important for ensuring that there is no repeat of Britain’s most famous aid scandal, the Pergau Dam affair of the early 1990s, where aid to Malaysia was administered by diplomats who agreed that hundreds of millions of pounds could be linked to a major arms deal.
“I think it’s good that ambassadors will have responsibility for aid delivered from their embassy. It could sometimes feel a bit odd when the Dfid country office didn’t see the aid budget as part of the UK’s toolbox when we wanted to push forward other work. The decision to give aid can be very political and it does give us influence,” said one FCO staff member.