A Bad Day for ‘Global Britain’

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Marcus Rashford’s campaign to get an extension of free school meal vouchers for 1.3m kids during the summer holiday. And I’m glad he got the UK government to reverse its position. But what does it say about that government when, on the same day it performed a U-turn on welfare policy in response to a professional footballer, it also decided to merge DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)? In so doing, it ignored all the evidence and expertise that argued against the merger. Seems like we’re back to the depressing ‘we’ve heard enough from experts’ days of the Brexit campaign.

A sense of what we are losing was well summarized by David MacNair in a Twitter thread:

‘Thanks to the internationally respected Department for International Development, which pioneered the aid quality standards by which others now abide, governments around the world take the UK’s development policy seriously.

The UK co-chaired the group that created the first draft of the Sustainable Development Goals – the UN’s blueprint for ending poverty that all of the world’s governments signed up to.

The UK also spearheaded anti-corruption policies through hosting the 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit, and through launching the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative.

From the start of 2015 until the end of 2017, support from the Department for International Development (DFID) helped immunise an estimated 37.4 million children, saving 610,000 lives.

The UK was the first and is currently the only G7 country to reach the UN’s target for spending 0.7% of GNI in aid – spurring more ambition from Germany France and Ireland.’

Should that be ‘from’ or ‘for’?

Only last week, the parliamentary International Development Select Committee concluded that the case for keeping an independent, aid-giving department with a cabinet level minister leading its work is “imperative”.

And the timing is disastrous – a global crisis when the last thing you want is for major donors to turn inwards and lose itself in the inevitable turf battles and bunfights of a reorganization.

So what happens next? Britain is still in the unique position of having its aid budget set by law at a minimum of 0.7% of Gross National Income, but even before the merger, a slippery slope of aid being channelled through other departments had been in evidence: between 2014 and 2019, the share of aid spending outside DfID increased from £1.6bn (14%), to £4.1bn (27%). We can expect to see many more departmental hands in the sweetie jar from now on.

Who is in charge of spending the money matters. In his speech the PM said – “the British taxpayer has the right to expect that we achieve the maximum with every pound we spend” – but achieve what, and for whom? Evidence from National Audit Office and Independent Commission for Aid Impact shows that DFID is far more effective than other bits of government when it comes to tackling poverty: “the redistribution of the aid budget between departments has led to a growing focus on large middle-income countries, driven by security, climate change or economic goals, which risks a reduced focus on poverty and ‘leaving no one behind”.

As a free-standing cabinet-level aid ministry, DFID has increasingly resembled a global ‘last of the Mohicans’, as Australia, Canada, Norway and New Zealand, among others, have all folded respected aid departments back into their foreign ministries in recent years. A well-researched piece on Devex explored the experiences in the first three of these, and reinforces the concerns over what could be lost.

I’m also worried about the future of DFID’s research budget. It has funded some great work over the years – will a merged department born out of a cavalier attitude to the facts put the same kind of store on evidence ?

There are perhaps a few straws to clutch at – after all, there are always plenty of things to criticise at DFID as an any other aid agency. Perhaps this will lead to more joined up government on areas from conflict to climate change action? Perhaps an FCO-DFID hybrid can escape from the econo-bean counters and planners and learn to ‘think and work politically’ and ‘do development differently’? Unfortunately, I’ve tried this argument out on policy wonks in countries that have already merged their foreign and development ministries, like Australia and Canada, and people always tell me I’m chatting rubbish.

So precious few signs of a silver lining – it’s hard to see this as more than an exercise in self-defeating institutional vandalism. We need a U-turn. Anyone got Marcus Rashford’s phone number?

You can find more in my previous pieces on this issue from October 2015 and January 2020.

Update: According to Sarah Champion, the MP who chairs the excellent International Development Select Committee, she has been told her committee will be wound up. So less scrutiny of the aid budget.

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7 Responses to “A Bad Day for ‘Global Britain’”
  1. A.Observer

    Based on the Australian experience of AusAID being swallowed into the Dept of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 2013, there’s some hard days ahead. Having a long resource-starved policy-based department with little experience of program delivery take over responsibility for development programming under a Tory government has been a disaster. AusAID was by no means perfect, but under DFAT strategic direction for development has been minimal and is always swamped by Foreign Affairs short termism. The DFAT values for the aid program appear to be Arrogance, Reactiveness, Superficiality and Elitism – it feels like there’s one of those nice printed cards next to every desk station spelling out the acronym.

  2. Shahrzad Amoli

    Frankly I’d really like to know what the term ‘Global Britain’ is supposed to mean? To me it’s not a very appropriate term to use unless there’s aspiration for a return to the days when the sun never set on…….

    • Duncan Green

      Fair comment Shahrzad, but surely there must be some alternative to either being neo-colonial, or entirely insular? The term is definitely a fuzzword, but could mean something like ‘responsible global citizen’, no?

  3. Sina Odugbemi

    Sad day. This is what the Foreign Office mandarins have always wanted. During my time in DFID, whenever I was working overseas I ran into this yearning to grab DFID money all the time. The mandarins would ask: why give all these millions to tree-huggers while we have nothing to spend? Now, they are going to get to spend the money, and not on international development as you and I understand it. But, as they say, elections have consequences!

  4. Larry Garber

    Interesting that Johnson’s move to merge (or is fold the better word) into the FCO comes at the same time that the Trump Administration is contemplating a shift in responsibility of the US government’s global health programs from USAID to the Department of State. And yet, political support for USAID remains strong in Congress. Will be worth watching how much harm the Administration can do in the next few months and whether the pendulum will shift 180 degrees if there is a Biden Administration in January 2021.

  5. Jan Vanheukelom

    During my 25 years in the Belgian development administration, in the UN and at ECDPM  I have regularly cooperated with numerous DFID practitioners in a wide range of geographic locations and on a multitude of development issues. To an impressive degree, these exchanges, as well as all related reading material (ranging from the products of the numerous research programmes DFID (co)funded, to the policy documents, papers, project related stuff and spin-offs, etc.) have been insightful and stimulating. No other international development organisation has contributed so cleverly to the vocabulary, mid-range theorising and dialogue on politics in development. And most of the DFID staff I worked with credibly stimulated me to further engage in the messy politics of change in international development. Dan Honig tellingly evidenced and illustrated how DFID went about being effective in one concrete case in South Africa. In contrast to USAID, DFID managed to strengthen capabilities of local authorities. Rather than succumb to the lure of a top-down approach that responds to the hierarchy and the politics of the day in the donor, DFID navigated by judgment and adapted its approach to the complexities of the context. By submerging DFID into the FCO, the new authorising environment is likely to shrink that space and alter the incentive environment towards top-down management.
    So on this Bad Day, I’d like to pass on a word of thanks to former colleagues and friends at DFID, and share my best wishes for the struggles ahead. 

    [see Dan Honig, Navigating by judgment. Why and when top-down management of foreign aid doesn’t work. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdjeoBFY9Ss or https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/book-review-navigation-by-judgment-by-dan-honig/%5D

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