A controversial Whitehall restructuring is happening by stealthby Jessica Abrahams / February 20, 2020 / Leave a comment
Will Boris Johnson merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
With the post-Brexit reshuffle providing an opportunity for change, all eyes were on whether the PM would reappoint a secretary of state for international development, securing the department’s independence and a seat in the cabinet. To the community’s great relief, he did.
But he also did something else. Unnoticed by many, he merged the junior ministerial teams of the two departments so that, with the exception of the secretary of state, all of DFID’s ministers are now shared with the FCO. What does this tell us about the prospect of a full restructuring?
Riding on this issue is how—and how well—the UK spends its £14bn aid budget. By extension, it affects how much difference that money can make to lower-income countries and the strength of the UK’s soft power. Prospect has highlighted the problems with a merger before. And it is an issue the development community has been monitoring since Johnson rose to the premiership last summer. Top civil servants oppose the restructuring.
But Johnson’s latest move might indicate that DFID is not safe yet. By merging the ministerial teams, he appears to be laying the groundwork—if not for a full merger, then for an orchestrated erosion of DFID’s influence and control over the aid budget.
Moves in that direction have been happening for a while. The first joint DFID-FCO ministers were introduced by Theresa May in 2017 in an effort to get the two international departments working more closely together, but nobody predicted then that DFID would end up sharing all of its ministers. This is the first time that a department has had no standalone ministers of its own.
To be fair, to look at it from another perspective, the FCO is also sharing with DFID—but it is clear which department holds the reins here.
Although DFID has managed to hold on to its secretary of state for now, that role has been held by a succession of relatively inexperienced politicians who, in the few months they have held the post, have proved unable—or unwilling—to robustly defend it amid a Whitehall power struggle. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was promoted to the position last week, has been in politics for less than five years and in government for less than seven months. She is also the fourth person to hold the role in the past year, following Alok Sharma, Rory Stewart and Penny Mordaunt.
Then there has been the slow drain of DFID’s budget. By law, the UK must spend 0.7 per cent of its gross national income on aid, but since 2015, the government has been working towards spending more of that through departments other than DFID. By 2018, DFID was spending less than 75 per cent of the budget.
A persistent erosion of DFID’s power is less dramatic than a full-blown merger but the result could be more or less the same. The prospect of a merger has caused consternation in the development community—DFID was spun out of the FCO 20 years ago following a political scandal caused by an aid-for-arms deal with Malaysia. The idea was that an independent department would protect the aid budget’s integrity.
In the years since, DFID has established a reputation for itself as one of the most experienced, evidence-driven aid agencies in the world. The FCO, meanwhile, which currently spends about 4.5 per cent of the aid budget, has been widely criticised for a lack of transparency on how it spends aid, a failure to properly monitor and evaluate its projects, and, unsurprisingly, a more politicised approach than DFID’s pure poverty reduction outlook.
Media reports suggest that a merger is still slated for the autumn, although those of us who have been following the issue have seen enough false alarms to take such predictions with a grain of salt.
For now, DFID remains independent. It may be that—to avoid the unappealing prospect of a messy and expensive Whitehall restructuring—it remains that way. But independence only protects it to the extent that the government wants it to. Mergers can take many forms, and this one might happen by stealth.