Prime minister Boris Johnson recently announced that the UK government will merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
The new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) will be charged with “using all the tools of British influence to seize the opportunities ahead”.
Bond, along with nearly 200 of its members, immediately spoke out against the merger. The proposals from the prime minister risk the UK turning its back on the world’s most vulnerable, while jeopardising the UK’s global Covid-19 response at a time when support and international collaboration are most needed.
DFID is one of the most respected development and humanitarian agencies in the world. The loss of the department will not only be a blow to the world’s poorest people, but will be detrimental to the reputation of the UK and our standing in the world.
Regardless of which department spends the aid budget going forward, it is critical that UK official development assistance (ODA) remains focussed on eradicating poverty and providing life-saving assistance. The UK government must take urgent steps to ensure that the high standards that DFID has set are maintained by the new department, starting with the following three pressing policy priorities.
1. Poverty reduction and principled humanitarian aid must be the primary focus
The UK government must maximise the amount of funding that immediately and directly reaches developing countries and the most marginalised. As the UK economy shrinks from the Covid-19 crisis, the aid budget faces consequent cuts at the time it is most needed. The government must not cut spending in the areas that make the biggest difference for the poorest people, such as health, education and nutrition.
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The process should also make an exemption for humanitarian support, the reduction of which would cost millions of lives, especially in acute settings like Yemen, Syria or the DRC. Any cuts to humanitarian assistance that are based on the UK’s political interests, rather than need, could directly endanger the lives of British aid workers and prevent aid from reaching the most vulnerable.
2. Ensure accountability to the British taxpayer and those we aim to help
The new department must be subject to the same degrees of public accountability and parliamentary scrutiny as DFID, to maintain the impact and value for money of the UK’s aid programme. DFID is often noted as one of the most accountable and scrutinised budgets in the world, as evidenced by the 2020 Aid Transparency Index that rated it as “very good”. By contrast, the same index rated the FCO near the bottom with a “fair” assessment. It is important that the new department works to the same standard of transparency of DFID to ensure accountability to the British taxpayer.
Aid only works well when it is accountable to parliament. Adding scrutiny of the aid budget to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s already pressing foreign policy concerns would result in both foreign affairs and aid spending not receiving necessary investigation. Considering that the International Development Select Committee will cease to exist once the merger is implemented, it is critical that a dedicated cross-government select committee is set up in its place to scrutinise aid spending by all government departments, separate from the FCDO’s departmental select committee.
The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) is a vital tool for ensuring UK aid is spent effectively and delivers value for money for the British public. The independent aid watchdog should be retained and should continue to report to a parliamentary committee, preferably to a new ODA committee. ICAI should also be tasked with reviewing and making recommendations on how the new ministry is set up, and its benchmarks for monitoring the impact of the changes.
3. Development and humanitarian concerns must be heard at the top of government
The UK must appoint a chief secretary responsible for development and humanitarian aid, with a seat in the cabinet and on the National Security Council. The chief secretary should be responsible for overall oversight of aid spending, across departments and policy areas, to promote a coherent vision. The cabinet-level role would also guarantee the UK adheres to OECD DAC rules and its commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid.
Evidence from ODI suggests that maintaining cabinet responsibility for development achieves better development results. A chief secretary role would also prevent the UK from losing DFID’s world-class expertise and established relationships with international bodies, such as the UN and World Bank.
It is critical that this role is distinct from the foreign secretary, who should focus primarily on protecting British interests and achieving foreign policy objectives. The separation of these roles will ensure that UK aid is not used to advance security and diplomatic interests, rather than reducing poverty.