What does a DFID merger with the FCO mean?

After his landslide election victory, Boris Johnson’s attention is now turning to the shape of government: planning on restructuring departments and having a clearout of Ministers.

Authors: Lewis Parker
  • Reading time: 3 min.
  • Posted on: December 16, 2019

This likely means the Department for International Development (DFID) will be dissolved and merged back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). But what would that actually mean for UK aid and the achievement of the SDGs by 2030?

The History of DFID

DFID coming under the control of the FCO is no new thing. The department originated from the Ministry of Overseas Development during the Labour government of 1964. Since then, it has been on a constant state of back and forth between independence and control by the FCO by previous Conservative and Labour governments. The DFID we know today was created in 1997 under Tony Blair’s Labour government. 

20 years later and an independent DFID is ranked as a world leader in aid transparency. By 2020, the UK will have helped vaccinate 76 million children, saving 1.4 million lives from preventable diseases, and we’re on track to reach 60 million people with clean water. Independence has not only worked, it has allowed the department to thrive. 

What are the plans?

Johnson has previously criticised DFID’s £13.4bn budget, saying “we can’t keep spending huge sums of money like some independent Scandinavian NGO.”  He wants Britain’s aid budget to come under the Foreign Office and be spent more in line with the country’s “national interest.” Following the electoral successes last week, it looks certain that this is now the plan.

One of the biggest threats of this merger is the continuation of removing DFID’s influence over the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget. Since 2013, a greater proportion of the aid budget has been spent by other departments including the FCO. Reallocating this budget has been the way that the government has been able to quietly erode DFID’s influence without dissolving the department. The war on aid: the hidden battle inside Priti Patel’s own department is a fascinating read for those interested in the internal departmental battles. 

The merger now makes it increasingly likely that more money will be siphoned off, and rather than UK aid being focussed on fighting poverty and suffering, it will be pitted against other foreign policy priorities. 

The department should remain independent. Since 1997, it’s independence has made the UK a global leader in development, helping to see us rank second on the global soft power index. It has made the UK an international development hub with a convergence of world-leading NGOs that are supported by think tanks and academics. 

It [the merger] will have a substantial detrimental effect on the UK aid agencies and implementation partners reliant on the funding.

Combined with Brexit, this merger is a huge mistake. It will have a substantial detrimental effect on the UK aid agencies and implementation partners reliant on the funding. These are organisations who are paramount to the 10 year deadline we now have to meet the SDGs. 

As with all policy proposals, the devil is in the details. However, one thing is for certain: In a post-Brexit and isolationist Trump administration world, re-thinking the UK’s approach to aid spending by aligning it with the country’s foreign policy will only result in an abandonment of the current beneficiaries of aid:  the marginalised and vulnerable countries where DFID-funded programmes are saving and changing lives. 

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