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Former development secretary Justine Greening speaks at the Youth Summit, hosted by DFID, in 2015. 

Credit: Jessica Lea/DFID - Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Does DFID have a future or is it well and truly a thing of the past?

17 June 2022
Author: Paul Abernethy

Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the Prime Minister’s announcement that he was to merge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID), to create the brand new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).  

Designed to “unite development and diplomacy in one department,” the merger has not been without its controversies. Bond and its members long warned that a merger would deprioritise development with significant cuts to the UK aid budget. Since then, and with a loss of DFID staff and expertise, it’s hard to argue against that.  

But will we ever see a decoupling of these two departments? In what would be the 25th anniversary of DFID, we ask: does the former department have a future at all? 

As a creation of the New Labour government in 1997, DFID was a crown jewel of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s foreign policy agenda. Since then, under the leadership of both Labour, Conservative and coalition governments, the standalone department went from strength to strength, helping to cement the UK as a major development donor, and a lead provider of humanitarian assistance. DFID helped build the UK’s reputation as a reliable partner, all the while cultivating trust and harnessing “soft power” across the world.  

Could we see the department reinstated? The chances are slim as it stands. It would take a fundamental change at the top of the Conservative party for the department to be a priority once again. Even if there was a leadership contest, the frontrunners – Liz Truss, Ben Wallace and Jeremy Hunt - are unlikely to reinstate an independent department, especially after the political capital that was spent on getting the merger over the line. 

As for Labour, Keir Starmer opposed the merger of the Foreign Office and DFID. Standing at the dispatch box on the day of the announcement, he said that he wanted “to see Britain as a moral force for good in the world and a force for global justice and co-operation”. He then went on to say that we do “not achieve that by abolishing one of the best performing and most important departments - a department that has done so much to tackle poverty and injustice".

But, so far, we have had nothing but warm words and little has been done by Starmer to demonstrate his commitment to an independent department. In a recent article, the shadow minister for international development, Preet Gill, gave an insight into Labour’s international development agenda.  

While the focus on poverty reduction was welcome, it speaks volumes that a commitment to an independent department was left out. If Starmer is serious about Britain being a “moral force for good in the world and a force for global justice and co-operation," then more needs to be done to spell out what restoring development expertise could mean. 

What about the Liberal Democrats? Again, we have had some movement on this from the party leadership, with their foreign policy spokesperson, Layla Moran, passing a motion last year that would see her party restore DFID with the Sustainable Development Goals at the heart.  

The Liberal Democrats were of course integral to the creation and implementation of the 0.7% GNI target being passed into law, but it remains to be seen what the party and their activists will do about a potential reinstatement of DFID. It is a similar story with the SNP, who have been long supporters of an independent DFID and the 0.7% target. 

Bond’s position is clear on this. International development and humanitarian assistance is best delivered by an independent department focused on providing programmatic work that does not harm the environment and is focused on improving and transforming the lives of the most marginalised communities around the world. 

This does not necessarily mean the reformation of DFID. We are asking political parties to commit to having a separate department, led by a secretary of state, who can make decisions independent of any other foreign policy asks. Official Development Assistance (ODA) should always be based on need, not the whims of a particular (and ever-changing) set of ministers. 

But will we ever see an independent department delivering UK and humanitarian support again? Unless there are significant changes in the Conservative leadership’s approach to development, then probably not any time soon.  

While we did get a glimpse of Labour’s development agenda, their commitment to reinstating DFID - or any other separate department - has been nothing but warm words so far. It is welcome to see other opposition parties commit to having an independent department, but as it stands, the chances of it happening appear slim.  

About the author

Paul
Bond

Paul leads the political advocacy of Bond, working with parliamentarians and ministers in support of ending global poverty.