In a new report, a cross-party group of MPs condemn the UK government’s recent decision to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), highlighting that the merger will “jeopardise the ongoing effectiveness of future UK aid spending.”
The International Development Select Committee (IDC) released its follow up report to the recent “Aid Effectiveness Inquiry”, branding the move “out of the blue”. The committee, made up of five Conservative MPs, four Labour MPs, and a member from the SNP, concluded that the merger could have serious consequences for the UK’s standing in the world.
With an integrated review of the government’s international priorities planned for later this year, the report questions the “perplexing” timing of the merger announcement: “taking the decision before completing the review denied many external stakeholders the opportunity to contribute evidence; and pre-empted the review’s conclusions.”
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Despite recent remarks from the prime minister and the secretary of state for international development, Bond and members were not consulted on the merger before the announcement. We believe that the IDC is right in its conclusions. Making such a drastic decision before speaking to experts through a meaningful and deliberative process, such as the Integrated Review, not only undermines the legitimacy of the process, but weakens an already questionable rationale for merging the departments.
Other recommendations from this timely and welcome report include:
- The government should present a statement to parliament setting out an evidence-led rationale for any change, quantifying expected costs and how intended benefits justify the costs, and showing how both will be measured and controlled.
- Poverty reduction should continue to form a central part of the government’s international policy. Accordingly, it should commit to targeting the majority of the UK’s official development assistance (ODA) spend towards the very poorest countries. The government should also set out how its refreshed international policy intends to work towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring that no-one is left behind.
- The government should appoint a minister for development with responsibility for the totality of the UK’s aid spend, and this minister should attend cabinet. We also recommend that this minister attends the National Security Council.
- The government should set a target for all Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) programmes to achieve a minimum ICAI grading of “green/amber” within the next year.
- The government should maintain a commitment to multi-year programming and grants to locally-led projects in order to safeguard hard-won development gains. In its current review of ODA spending, it should prioritise life-saving projects across the global south.
- To safeguard the effectiveness of UK aid interventions, the government should set out how it intends to capture and retain DFID expertise in doing development well, and what plans are in place to rapidly train FCO staff in the skills necessary to manage effective and poverty reduction focused development programmes.
- The government should set out how it intends to ensure that ODA administered through the new FCDO meets high standards for transparency in its programming. Consequently, it should commit to all UK ODA funding meeting the transparency standard of “good” within the next year.
- As part of the Integrated Review, the government should set out its strategy for development spending through multilateral institutions over the next five years, including the proportions of UK ODA to be spent through bilateral and multilateral channels, whether it intends to honour existing agreements and how it will it will seek to influence these organisations to ensure that UK aid spending is spent in the best possible way.
- The creation of a House of Commons Select Committee on Official Development Assistance (ODA), with a remit for scrutiny of the totality of the UK’s ODA spending.
- The government retain ICAI in its current form in order to provide thorough and independent scrutiny of the UK’s aid budget.
- Drawing upon the highly effective model of cooperation between the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee, the new ODA Committee should have responsibility for receiving and considering ICAI’s reviews. It should also have responsibility for the other aspects of cooperation and coordination with ICAI in which we currently participate, including recruitment of the chief commissioner and other commissioners, agreement of the forward work programme and commissioning work.
We support the IDC’s recommendations
From the report it seems that members of the IDC are just as much in the dark as the rest of the development sector. They share concerns that this merger is a political move based on ideology, not evidence. We support the IDC’s call for the government to urgently present a statement to parliament setting out an evidence-led rationale for this costly decision, and to begin meaningful consultation with the aid and development sector.
From the start of this process, Bond has been clear that if this merger is to happen, then the government must adopt three initial policies to ensure that the UK’s reputation as a guardian of good quality aid and development is not lost:
- Ensure poverty reduction and principled humanitarian aid is the primary focus of the new department by maximising the amount of funding that immediately and directly reaches developing countries and vulnerable and marginalised people.
- Ensure accountability to both the British taxpayer and those we aim to help by maintaining high levels of transparency, as well as independent and parliamentary scrutiny bodies.
- Ensure development and humanitarian concerns are heard at the very top of government by appointing a chief secretary responsible for development and humanitarian aid, with a seat in cabinet and the National Security Council.
Bond and members are building on these asks and developing a set of aid and sustainable development indicators for the new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office. If you wish to know more, or be involved in this work, please contact Bond’s public affairs and government relations manager, Paul Abernethy, on [email protected].