UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been widely expected to axe the Department for International Development (DfID) in a shake-up of civil service following his election victory in December, but these plans have reportedly been shelved for now.
The plans floated in December involved merging DfID, which spends the majority of the UK’s aid budget, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
There were widely-expressed concerns from across the UK's aid sector that this merger would mean a loss of transparency over how aid for overseas development is spent — and that spending could be therefore be diverted away from addressing extreme poverty and towards other policy goals.
More than 100 organisations, including Global Citizen, had called on the UK government in December not to go ahead with the proposals — and aid agencies and non-profits are now cautiously celebrating the reports about the merger being shelved.
But the Times newspaper has since reported that while the DfID as an entity would likely stay in place, it could lose its Secretary of State (currently a post held by Alok Sharma), with responsibilty for running the department being transferred to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
That is now another cause for concern because losing the Secretary of State for International Development would mean the loss of departmental oversight exclusively focused on development.
World leader on aid
The UK is a world leader on aid spending, having committed to spending 0.7% of its gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid, and is one of just five countries in the world to meet or exceed the target.
The organisations that signed December's letter urged Johnson to keep DfID as a separate department and make sure that the Secretary of State for International Development keeps oversight of the UK’s aid funding.
“Merging DfID with the FCO would risk dismantling the UK’s leadership on international development and humanitarian aid,” the letter read. “It suggests we are turning our backs on the world’s poorest people, as well as some of the greatest global challenges of our time: extreme poverty, climate change, and conflict.”
DfID is one of the most accountable and transparent spenders of government aid in the world, according to the aid transparency index, helping to ensure that UK aid is always spent where it is needed most — in the mission to alleviate poverty.
The risk of UK aid funding instead being overseen by other departments — as well as the removal of the Secretary of State position — means the potential loss of that accountability and transparency.
Around 30% of the budget is currently spent by other government departments — including the FCO and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy — and that means that less UK aid money is reaching the world’s poorest people, according to a recent report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.
Losing the Secretary of State
While losing the Secretary of State for International Development is better than losing the whole department, the move creates other problems.
“Diverting aid towards UK foreign policy, commercial, and political objectives would undermine the UK’s global influence at a critical moment, and this remains a real risk if DfID is merged or loses its dedicated Secretary of State,” Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond, an association for UK NGOs, wrote in an email to the development news website Devex.
“It would also be incredibly difficult for a single Secretary of State to have complete oversight of both international development and the UK's humanitarian responses, as well as foreign policy,” she added. "Both [DfID and FCO] are important departments with complex portfolios and have distinct but at times complementary roles that need dedicated attention."
She said: "The best way to ensure UK aid continues to help the world's most vulnerable people is to have a dedicated Secretary of State for International Development."
As well as Global Citizen, organisations that signed the statement urging for the government to reconsider the DfID/FCO merger included: World Vision UK, ActionAid UK, Oxfam GB, STOPAIDS, Women for Women International UK, War on Want, Amref Health Africa UK, World Jewish Relief, Islamic Relief UK, Tearfund, VSO, the Kambia Appeal, TackleAfrica, and Mothers Union.