The new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has now opened its virtual doors following the merger of the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
The now former secretary of state for international development has said the rationale behind the merger was to “maximise our impact around the world, project our values and be a stronger force for good” in the world.
The move presents both risks and opportunities for the UK’s ability to help the world’s marginalised and excluded communities, and addressing the most pressing global challenges we face.
How will we know whether the new department has put ending poverty at the heart of its agenda? And what are the principles and tests we can use to track if the department is maximising opportunities and mitigating risks so the UK can continue to provide millions of people around the world with development and humanitarian assistance?
Three opportunities that the FCDO presents
There are three important opportunities here that would help the FCDO be successful:
Coherent, cross-departmental policy
The government can now ensure policy coherence across departments so that efforts on human rights, development and the Sustainable Development Goals, humanitarian response and peacebuilding, and climate change are not undermined. We should use this opportunity to stop investing in fossil fuels and suspend arms sales potentially fuelling the war in Yemen and other conflict affected areas.
Supporting human rights and civic space
The UK could play an important role in protecting and promoting democracy, human rights and civic space. We are increasingly seeing a crackdown on people’s right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and the freedom of expression. This merger could help counter these trends.
Tackling climate change
The UK could lead by example by supporting action on climate and nature and aligning all official development assistance (ODA) to the Paris Agreement. This would help ensure that people living in marginalised communities, who contribute the least to climate change yet are the most affected by it, no longer are the ones who suffer the most.
What are the potential risks of the FCDO?
Despite the opportunities, major risks to UK aid remain.
The right experts
Maintaining professional expertise, engagement with external stakeholders, keeping DFID’s strong track record on transparency and ensuring a focus on poverty alleviation within the FCDO need to be prioritised.
The FCDO’s interim leadership team has only two people from DFID and appears to emphasise diplomatic rather than development experience. From previous mergers in other countries, we know that losing development expertise risks undermining both aid delivery and our reputation as a global leader on poverty reduction, sustainable development and humanitarian response.
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Retaining experienced development staff and expertise is fundamental to ensure effective use of the aid budget. Expertise inside government must also be balanced with the experience from outside – particularly those with local knowledge. This is critical for robust policy and programmes, and early engagement avoids mistakes and u-turns.
The UK must continue to show global leadership in transparency and the FCDO should adopt DFID’s transparency agenda, which includes commitments across open societies, open government, freedom of the press, extractives and natural resource transparency, and open budgeting. This could be challenging given the FCO’s low rating on the Aid Transparency Index.
In terms of accountability, it is reassuring that ICAI will remain, with a review to ensure a solid focus on impact – which is its purpose. But we are yet to hear whether this will be matched by much needed parliamentary scrutiny of the UK’s aid strategy and spending.
Keeping to manifesto pledges
We have received reassurances from government officials that DFID’s leadership on gender and disability will continue and that there will be a sustained focus on using ODA to support poverty alleviation, particularly in lower-income countries.
The 2019 Conservative manifesto pledges around health, education, climate and environment are also said to be central to the new department’s work. We have also heard the foreign secretary Dominic Raab state his commitment to human rights and a focus on the “bottom billion”, which we hope will lead to the protection of the UK’s proud commitment to the 0.7% of GNI aid target.
Where will the resources be spent?
The real test will come when the FCDO starts allocating resources. Will the flow of money match the rhetoric, maintaining the amount of resources committed to supporting the most marginalised communities globally? Or will development become a junior partner, as many fear, with resources shifting away from those most in need toward the countries where the UK’s commercial, security and diplomatic interests reside?
If we are going to make the most of the opportunities, we need to get the basics right. Right now, many questions remain unanswered. The UK’s vibrant and passionate development sector is here to help, inform and advise. We will be watching closely how the FCDO evolves, and we’ll be vocal in holding the government to account where necessary.
Checkout our 15 principles and hallmarks for the new FCDO to ensure it embraces opportunities for greater policy coherence across government and strategic action.