When Boris Johnson announced a dramatic cabinet reshuffle in February, the Department for International Development (DfID) was under threat. Its lifesaving UK aid budget — used to alleviate global poverty — looked like it could be consumed and spent by other departments.
But while the charity sector celebrated an unexpected victory as DfID was saved with a new secretary of state to boot, a memo leaked to the Times on March 5 has indicated that its future is far from assured.
The worry was that DfID and the Foreign Office (FCO) would be combined into a single department. It might not sound too significant, but it’s important to note that DfID is among the most transparent and effective spenders of overseas aid in the world. However, other government departments, like the FCO, don’t share such a great track record.
It means that a merger between DfID and the FCO risks reducing the quality of aid spending, and detracting from the key objective of overseas aid: ending extreme poverty through tackling its root causes.
While an official merger between the departments appears to be off the table for now, the Times reports that country directors responsible for local aid spending have now been told to report to ambassadors from the FCO instead of DfID — something the newspaper described as a “silent coup.”
With this in place, the UK can no longer claim to have a policy on aid spending which is in any way independent of its foreign policy objectives. Focus on the most vulnerable, and on principled aid, will suffer.— Tom Newby (@tomnewby) March 5, 2020
DfID and the FCO already share junior ministers after Johnson urged the departments to work together to achieve Britain’s wider strategic goals.
But this new shift of power to the FCO could now reportedly result in DfID staff being under pressure in those countries to hand over money to ambassadors to fund political projects or to support British companies trading there.
That means aid spending that is less accountable and less transparent — with vital funding not necessarily reaching the most vulnerable people who need it the most.
“DfID is over,” one source told the Times. “It will just be the Foreign Office now. If it eats grass, produces milk, and is black and white ... it's a cow. We are just pretending it's called a horse.”
Britain has enshrined in law a commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross national income (GNI) on UK aid. Its intention is to support the 736 million people who live in extreme poverty worldwide, defined as living on less than $1.90 a day.
The reports have been widely condemned across party lines for frustrating one of the most respected aid departments anywhere in the world — especially in comparison to the Foreign Office’s relatively opaque record on accountability and impact, according to the Aid Transparency Index.
“Anything that is seen to undermine that independence [of DfID] will undermine our reputation among partners and must be avoided at all costs,” said Sarah Champion, Labour MP and chairwoman of the international development committee.
Former international development secretary and Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell added that the people who should be spending aid must be those with a specialist background: “the value of our ambassadors comes from their relationships and diplomatic acumen, not their eye for details or experience of value-for-money programming of multi million-pound taxpayer investments.”
Meanwhile, Bond — a UK network of NGOs — have warned that UK aid is in danger of being “politicised” by changes in command, which will make it less effective at reducing global poverty and inequality.
“Reports that DfID staff are being told to report directly to the Foreign Office are alarming and suggest the outcome of the integrated security, defence, and foreign policy review has been decided before it has even taken place – with zero consultation with humanitarian and development experts,” Bond said in a statement.
“The British taxpayer cannot afford for aid to be misspent on vanity projects where there is little evidence that it will reach those who need our support the most.”
But Boris Johnson has previously declared that UK aid spending must be more aligned with “political, commercial, and diplomatic interests” too.
“If ‘Global Britain’ is going to achieve its full and massive potential then we must bring back DfID to the FCO,” Johnson told the Financial Times in 2019. “We can’t keep spending huge sums of British taxpayers’ money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO.”