On 16 June 2020, the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the Department for International Development (DFID) would be merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to form a new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The new organisation is scheduled to be operational by September and will be led by the Foreign Secretary, with no Cabinet-level representation on development.
Although a merger had been hinted at previously by the government, the announcement largely came as a surprise, provoking outrage from Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and Greens, as well as the development and humanitarian community.
Boris Johnson previously stated his desire to see the foreign aid budget spent more in line with the UK’s “political and commercial interests”, arguing that aid and foreign policy are “one and the same endeavour”. And since the 2015 UK Aid Strategy, British development and diplomacy have been brought progressively closer.
Already, cuts to the aid budget have been announced. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the UK’s secretary of state for international development, informed parliamentarians earlier this month that a review process was underway to identify where reductions could be made. She told the International Development Committee that the U.K. government’s aid budget “will be smaller this year and probably next.” Nick Dyer, DFID’s acting permanent secretary, said: “Given the size of this potential cut or pause, the budget reduction — I think there is some inevitability. And I think [we] just need to be realistic about this. A whole range of potential suppliers will be impacted.”
Many are rightly concerned that the merger risks marginalising humanitarian aid at the expense of political and security objectives.
DFID has played a colossal role in tackling inequality and supporting the wellbeing of the world’s most marginalised. The department is regarded as a world leader in aid and responsible for the UK’s status as a “development superpower”. The restructure therefore carries the risk of losing critical expertise in UK aid spending and the delivery of large development projects that target improving the lives of millions all over the world.
Arguably, the means and ends of development and diplomacy are fundamentally distinct. Foreign policy prioritises a nation’s economic and geopolitical goals while development policy is intended to advance long-term shared collective interests. DFID has safeguarded UK aid for those people and places most in need and led the UK’s efforts towards the SDGs and ending extreme poverty.
For example, the way the two departments spend aid varies considerably. DFID has a clear focus on poverty reduction and subsequently allocates much of its aid to low-income and least developed countries, whereas the FCO targets much of its aid spend to Middle Income Countries.
The newly formed Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must maintain a principled commitment to development aims and meet the UK’s obligations to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. DFID projects have empowered women, youth and people with disabilities. They have tackled the risk of child marriage and FGM and improved access to sexual and reproductive health. Diverting funds away from these initiatives would be catastrophic to millions.
In the new Brexit landscape, where the government is set on embarking on its “Global Britain” foreign policy agenda, it is critical that the UK remains focused on eradicating poverty and providing life-saving assistance. Boris Johnson and his administration must ensure that the standards that DFID has set are retained by the new department.