Merging the Foreign Office and DFID: Views for and against

What’s happening?

On 26 June 2020, the Prime Minister announced his intention to merge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Development (DFID). The new department will be called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It will be led by the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab. The relevant UK ambassador will lead all the Government’s work in the host country, including both diplomacy and aid.  

It is intended the new department will be established by September 2020. This follows the creation of a joint ministerial team for the two departments in February 2020.

A ministry for overseas aid was first established by Harold Wilson in 1964. Since then, international aid has at various times been administered by a stand-alone department and by the Foreign Office. The current department was set up by Tony Blair in 1997.

What are the arguments for the move?

According to the Government, the aim of the move is to give the UK’s foreign work more power and coherence. Announcing the change in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister said that “distinctions between diplomacy and overseas development are artificial and outdated”. Boris Johnson said that the new structure will enable the Government to ensure all policies and expenditure in foreign countries are working towards the same end:

“[…] what will now happen within the new department is that every single person working in that new Whitehall super-department—the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—will now have all the idealism and sense of mission that comes from DFID, but also the understanding of the need to project UK values, UK policies and UK interests overseas”.

The Foreign Secretary said that the merger would ensure that the UK’s impact abroad is “bigger than the sum of its parts” by combining DFID’s development expertise with “the diplomatic reach and clout of the Foreign Office”. He argued that the current pandemic is an example of the alignment of the UK’s interests with its moral responsibilities. This is because preventing outbreaks in developing countries will not only benefit people in those countries but will reduce the chance of a second wave of the virus in the UK.

In an editorial, Allister Heath, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, said the move will “reduce waste, junkets and ineffective, counterproductive spending, and allow a unified foreign policy”. An editorial in the Telegraph highlighted that in many other OECD countries aid and foreign policy are run from one department. It argued that bringing together the two departments will enable foreign policy and health, security, prosperity and development issues to “speak with one strategic voice”.

What are the arguments against?

Some have argued that the merger will have negative consequences for the UK’s aid work and global standing. Responding to the Prime Minister’s statement, the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, emphasised DFID’s achievements in improving lives and said that “abolishing DFID diminishes Britain’s place in the world”. The Institute of Development Studies, part of the University of Sussex, argued against bringing the two departments together. It stated that “any restructuring that diluted DFID’s independence, influence or further reduced the share of UK Aid DFID is responsible for distributing, would risk diminishing the UK’s global positioning, security and prosperity”.

Many commentators have focused their criticisms on the concern that aid spending will become more politicised. They worry it will be aimed at improving the UK’s global position rather than helping the world’s poorest. Former overseas development minister and former EU commissioner for external relations, Lord Patten of Barnes, said about a putative merger: 

“As soon as you make DFID a part of the foreign service, you’ll get all sorts of leaking of money from what should be developmental purposes […] into paying for things like subsidies for security forces in developing countries and political contacts. And I just think that would be wrong”.

Others have argued that the process of bringing together the two departments will waste resources. The Institute for Government notes that any changes to departmental structures have costs, including “setting up new IT systems, moving officials between buildings and levelling up salaries”, which it estimates at a minimum of £15 million. In addition, it argues that productivity decreases while civil servants get used to the new structures, estimating this bedding-in period at about two years. Lord Ricketts, former National Security Adviser and current chair of the House of Lords EU Security and Justice Committee, said that, in his experience, “Whitehall mergers soak up time and effort of senior managers, and rarely deliver real operational benefits”.

Image by Chris Lawton at Unsplash.