Five reasons why merging DFID with the FCO is a terrible idea

Thanks to a ‘misquoted’ intervention from the Foreign Secretary, last week witnessed the re-emergence of an age-old debate: should we merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)? DFID was separated from the FCO back in 1997 and recently celebrated its 20th birthday, but today it remains one of the last aid departments globally that isn’t part of a foreign ministry. Is it time to call time on an independent aid department?

There are at least five reasons why this is a terrible idea, and why turf-grabs by Boris Johnson’s Foreign Office should be resisted at all costs. A merger of DFID and the FCO would leave us in a significantly weaker position both in terms of our political and economic influence in the world, and in terms of making UK aid more effective.

Firstly, evidence from other countries that have merged their foreign and development departments, like Australia or Canada, shows that this can threaten both the quantity and quality of aid. Both countries are still far from reaching the internationally agreed 0.7% aid target. In Australia’s case overall aid spending even decreased following the merger in 2013, and since the disappearance of the well-regarded AusAid increasing proportions of aid have been diverted for controversial uses such as in-country refugee costs. And aid under the Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is increasingly outsourced to private firms, with DFAT arguably having lost much of the expertise to manage aid in-house as a result of the merger. Such mergers also muddy the waters in terms of aid’s purpose, making it all too easy to confuse donor interests with the interests of developing countries.

Secondly, it is doubtful that the FCO could easily assume DFID’s hard-won global leadership on development. Over the past 20 years DFID has emerged as a world-leader in development and is part of a powerful British ecosystem of other government departments, global businesses, international NGOs, universities and research institutions that together have helped put Britain at the number two spot in the global ‘Soft Power Index’. A young DFID helped pioneer the Millennium Development Goals that subsequently saw global poverty halve in 15 years, and its continued global leadership helped to raise the ambition for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). DFID has managed to bring Britain’s priorities to the forefront of global development action – from bold and quick responses to famines and Ebola, to a stronger focus on gender equality.

Thirdly, since it was set up in 1997 DFID has gained a world-class reputation for aid effectiveness, and is regularly in the top five donors worldwide for aid transparency. DFID continuously fights the taxpayers’ corner in its efforts to improve value for money, and has sought to bring aid agencies around the world up to its high standards, being a key driver of the development effectiveness agenda worldwide, and a regular instigator of reforms of the international rules around how aid is counted. It is unclear whether the FCO could or would replicate this level of commitment to transparency and aid effectiveness, receiving a ‘poor’ ranking in the most recent Aid Transparency Index in which it is listed.

Fourthly, it is precisely the independence of DFID that has enabled it to have such global influence. Its independence has underwritten the trust of other donors and aid recipients alike that its agenda is poverty reduction – as enshrined in the International Development Act of 2002, which governs its operations – and not the UK’s broader diplomatic or national interest. Its independence has likewise allowed the interests of poor countries to have a voice around the Cabinet table, making sure that the decisions of other government departments take these into account. This trust and purity of purpose sits in stark contrast to the scandals of ‘aid for trade and arms’ that plagued the pre-DFID Foreign Office, as encapsulated by the Pergau Dam affair.

Finally, we need a strong independent DFID to anchor the cross-government aid agenda in an age when over 20% of UK aid is spent by departments other than DFID. To ensure cross-government aid spending delivers the most impact (and good value for taxpayers’ money) DFID will need to play a vital role in setting the standards for efficiency and coherence across departments, acting as a centre of development expertise on which other departments can draw. As Save the Children argues in our new report Next Generation Aid, rather than a merger, now more than ever we need an independent DFID equipped with the means to drive improved aid scrutiny, coherent country strategies and policies, and aid transparency across the rest of government.

It’s critical that we strive to increase the impact of UK aid on the world’s poorest and most marginalised people. We should continuously strive to make development better and to ensure UK aid really delivers for the next generation of children. But doing so will depend on continued leadership from a strong, expert and independent DFID – now and into the future.

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  • Peter Simons

    Well argued: strongly support this.

  • Susan Verney

    An v. important and informative article. Wish I’d read it earlier.

  • Hi Susan, we’re pleased to hear this. Thank you for your support.