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The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office building in London, UK.

Credit: Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Licence: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) 

The FCDO’s first 6 months: progress and concerns

2 March 2021
Author: Simon Starling

Today marks six months since the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) was created. The new department merged the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on 2 September 2020.  

At the time, the government described the merger as “an opportunity for the UK to have even greater impact and influence on the world stage”, despite widespread concern from the development sector.  

The new department presents opportunities and challenges for the UK’s leadership on aid and development. At the time, Bond outlined 15 principles to enable the new department to be effective and a series of indicators to hold the new department to account: A force for good: principles and hallmarks for the new FCDO.   

A merger of this size will take a long time to complete, as we’ve seen in other countries. But the FCDO has already made some key decision and revealed directions of travel.  

To ensure the new department delivers for the world’s most marginalised people, we have assessed the FCDO’s progress to date against our 15 principles and hallmarks. We have also identified successes, concerns and recommendations for the next six months.  

Some progress and some good decisions on independent scrutiny 

The FCDO has focused on some crucial global challenges, including climate change and open societies, which is welcome. The decision to retain both the International Development Committee (IDC) and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) is hugely important for ensuring the accountability and impact of the UK’s work overseas.  

We also welcome the FCDO’s intention to shift to bilateral programming as a default. This mode of aid is often more effective and strategic for tackling global challenges and enables strong local ownership of development programmes. 

Concerns around development priorities 

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab set out a "strategic framework"  letter to the IDC. Notable by its absence was a focus on poverty reduction as a strategic priority for official development assistance (ODA). Without this, the new department risks placing development second to diplomacy, rather than uniting them in support of international effort as the prime minister intended, and making decisions that do little to address cycles of poverty. The absence of an explicit strategic commitment to gender equality, beyond the commitment to girls’ education, is a missed opportunity for the UK to continue its strong leadership record on gender. 

Lack of transparency and consultation  

Much of the FCDO’s progress to date has been overshadowed by plans to cut UK ODA from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5% during a pandemic. This decision would do irrevocable harm to the world’s most marginalised people, while undermining the UK’s international reputation. Using the most recent available data from 2019, the cut will reduce ODA by a colossal £5 billion, equivalent to all bilateral aid to the 20 biggest recipient countries.  

We are extremely concerned about the lack of transparency and consultation over the decisions behind these cuts and other decisions affecting UK development. This lack of consultation with civil society limits the department’s access to development expertise, as well as diverse insights and real-time information from hard-to-reach places and communities. Our recent request for details on the aid cuts process was denied by the government, citing concerns over the FCDO’s “commercial interests”. 

4 things we want to see from the FCDO in the next six months 

Overall, there has been some good, mixed  and poor performance against the indicators we established six months ago. We have also identified a set of recommendations that will help the FCDO fulfil its potential over the next six months, starting with these pressing issues: 

  • An urgent reversal of the decision to reduce ODA from 0.7% to 0.5% GNI. While the process is ongoing, the UK should continue to plan for a 0.7% spend in line with its legal requirement.  
  • A comprehensive international development strategy focused on poverty reduction and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 
  • Improved consultation with civil society at a strategic and policy level with regular dialogue enshrined in a strategy to promote meaningful, inclusive and effective engagement. 
  • Improvements on transparency and accountability, including publicly communicating details of the 2020 cuts to ODA and inclusive consultation on all future strategy decisions. 

See our full recommendations and detailed ratings of the FCDO’s progress in our updated hallmarks and principles for the FCDO: 6 months on.  

About the author

Simon Starling
Bond

Simon is director of policy, advocacy and research at Bond.