Political parties are divided on many issues, but they agree on one thing: whoever gets elected will take office facing a raft of tough challenges. The NHS is in need of a financial injection. Social care reform is long overdue. Child poverty demands urgent action. Parents across the country want to see action on nurseries and schools. Our economy needs decarbonising. On the foreign policy stage, Russia looms large. Oh, and I almost forgot the small matter of Brexit and our future relationship with the EU.
By any standards, that’s an impressive short list of issues for priority action. So why, I ask myself, would any incoming government go out of its way to select a ministry which is manifestly not broken and decide to apply a fix guaranteed to create a new problem?
That’s the question hovering over a Financial Times report suggesting that the Prime Minister is contemplating a merger between DFID and the Foreign Office next year, if he is returned to office.
Over the past 22 years DFID has carved out a deserved reputation as the world’s leading development agency. Under governments of all stripes it has championed initiatives on immunisation, HIV-AIDS, gender equality, education, and health. Operating across some of the toughest political environments, DFID has delivered results that have transformed the lives of people living on the margins. More than that, it has overseen the delivery of UK aid while meeting the highest standards of transparency and accountability (the Foreign Office is not in the same league here).
You can measure DFID’s impact by counting the number of children now alive and healthy who might have lost their lives to preventable disease. Alternatively, you might want to consider the number of girls now in school rather than in early marriage because of UK aid. But ultimately what DFID delivers goes beyond aid finance and data on beneficiaries. This is a government department that projects values like compassion, human solidarity and empathy onto the global stage. In the midst of what has been a sometimes distressingly polarised election, these are the values that define the best of the UK. They are the foundation for any project aimed at building an agenda for global Britain. In short, DFID is a national asset we should be proud of.
So why erode the asset by merging it into the Foreign Office? Whatever the intention, the merger will weaken the effectiveness of UK aid. The danger (though hopefully not the intent) is that aid will be unduly influenced by UK foreign policy, commercial and security interests, with poverty reduction taking a back seat in the car behind. That would damage the UK’s international standing, along with the interests of some of the world’s poorest people.
None of this is to downplay the importance of the Foreign Office. We have worked closely with ministers and some outstanding civil servants in our campaigning work on Yemen, the Rohingya crisis and Syria. The Foreign Office has a vital role to play in upholding international humanitarian law and the human rights of children affected by conflict, in promoting the rule of law, and using diplomatic missions to advance agendas on gender equity and LGBT rights. But when it comes to aid delivery, DFID is a global first among unequals.
A merger would downgrade the soft power that comes with leadership in international development. And you don’t have to take my word for that. Former Permanent Representatives to the United Nations, Sir John Sawers and Lord Hannay and Andrew Mitchell, a distinguished former Secretary of State, have cited DFID’s standing as a source of influence at the UN. The same applies at the World Bank and IMF.
Whether or not the reports on a possible merger are premature, they are certainly inconsistent with the Conservative manifesto. If the ambition is to “end the preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children by 2030, and lead the way in eradicating Ebola and malaria”, or to “stand up for the right of every girl in the world to have 12 years of quality education”, an independent DFID is the only credible game in town.
International development may not figure prominently in the election campaign headlines, but politicians should not under-estimate the strength of feeling across a broad swathe of the UK public. On Friday, five million people from Shetland to the Scilly Isles will don Christmas jumpers in support of Save the Children’s mission. Many millions more support aid charities across the sector. This is a country with a deep generosity of spirit – and DFID is, in part, an expression of that generosity.
On Friday morning the new government will have to take stock and then take action on some of the great challenges that face us as a nation. Shooting itself in the foot with an unnecessary merger aimed at resolving a non-existent problem would not be a smart move.