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Properly implemented, the FCO-DfID merger could bring benefits home and away

As the news broke yesterday that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID) are to be merged, relatives, friends, and colleagues vied to be the first to break the happy news. “Isn’t this what you’ve been saying for ages?” and “assume you are delighted with today’s announcement?” ran the theme. Having worked on DfID-funded aid programmes in Africa and South East Asia for all of my career, and ranted widely on the lack of professionalism and quality in much of the aid sector, my friends and relations naturally assumed that I would see this as a positive move.

The merger of DfID and the FCO is designed to better equip a ‘Global Britain’ to use all the levers of its international engagement – defence, diplomacy, aid, and trade – in a more joined-up fashion. This has long been an ambition of the centre right, perhaps given a boost by outward-looking supporters of Brexit, and Boris Johnson has personally backed such ideas for years. Notably, he wrote the foreword to a report by the Henry Jackson Society in February 2019 entitled Global Britain: A Twenty-First Century Vision – a report which calls for the FCO-DFID merger. In his foreword, the now Prime Minister lauds the “radical thinking about reform of Whitehall, so as to make far better use of our overall overseas spending, and to ensure that these vast sums do more to serve the political and commercial interests of the country.”

And it is true that despite being one of the most intelligent and innovative aid agencies in the world, DfID, like the NHS, should not be a “sacred cow” immune to scrutiny and efficiency reform. In my decade-plus of experience as part of DfID project teams in countries from South Sudan to Myanmar, I have come across staggering inefficiencies in spending, a lazy “copy and paste” culture, and a highly worrying lack of contextual awareness.

Allocating millions of pounds to UN agencies who take 40 percent in management overheads rather than to private companies who would take no more than 7 percent because DfID does not have to run a procurement process to gift money to the UN cannot be right. The inability of these organisations to be able to define the “good” that they achieve for that 40 percent is also damning – I was once evaluating a UNICEF education programme that could not tell me how many teachers they had trained. Spending millions on conducting studies not only doesn’t help any actual poor people, but also leaves the door wide open to other countries to come and do the practical stuff – often much preferred by recipients. In countries where Britain built the first railways, it is now the Chinese who are known for the highways, whilst DfID is known for PowerPoint presentations.

I have also rarely encountered a DfID expat staffer with anything approaching the level of language, contextual, and historical knowledge that FCO staff do – despite DfID having a much larger budget. FCO staff must pass additional entrance exams, learn local languages, and have their performance taken into account when being considered for promotion. DfID employees are not subject to any of these requirements, their job descriptions use the same management-speak “competency” categories as the rest of the civil service, and staff are not required to spend time in the field to absorb the sort of local detailed knowledge that would make them better at their job of poverty reduction.

it is now the Chinese who are known for the highways, whilst DfID is known for PowerPoint presentations.

Even the ex-DfID Secretary of State, Rory Stewart, has expressed frustration with his former department’s lack of contextual awareness and subject matter detail. Stewart recently said that few DfID people have a “detailed understanding of what is actually happening deep in the field”, that DfID has people who are “essentially managing contracts and increasingly locked in embassy compounds.” Stewart received a “hollow laugh” from the humanitarian adviser in South Sudan when Stewart suggested that he spend at least 50 percent of his time in the field. A positive outcome of this merger would therefore include bringing to DfID a dose of FCO-style HR quality control.

I have been told directly by a DfID Head of Office not to expect preferential treatment for funding “because I was British”. I have seen millions of pounds of UK aid contracts awarded to major American, Swedish, and Indian companies despite there being equally qualified British bidders. I have read procurement terms for DfID contracts that explicitly state that funds can be used to support trade from Africa to countries other than the UK. Yet, if countries who share our values like France, Germany, and the Netherlands can agree on joined-up global strategies for defence, diplomacy, aid, and trade, and make these four levers work in tandem, why shouldn’t Britain?

Whilst DfID’s “flag-blind altruism” may be highly commendable theory, it is not essential to the UK’s international standing. In some cases it actively undermines UK national interest. French, German, and Dutch aid officials manage perfectly well to be full and influential members of the international development community whilst simultaneously favouring French, German, and Dutch implementing agencies. If quality UK suppliers, technology, and talent are available, a strategic approach which prioritises them does not automatically reduce the quality of development work.

So the FCO-DfID merger could be a good thing. However, the announcement seems to have come prematurely, before the completion of the joint overseas spending and defence reviews that Downing Street has put in motion. The Henry Jackson Society report calls for a “National Global Strategy” to be developed, and a “National Strategy Council” to be put in place to make decisions on structural and spending reforms – the correct sequencing here would have been review, strategy, and then departmental reform only if the strategy called for it.

Such a strategy should be aligned to where Britain has comparative advantage in the world to make a difference. Following the logic of the report’s focus on the Anglosphere, a country like Zambia – an Anglophone member of the Commonwealth with high rates of absolute poverty as well as a major UK business presence – should be a much higher priority for any “Global Britain” strategy than Ukraine, contrary to what the Prime Minister implied in the Commons yesterday.

The structure of the new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) should preserve the best of both its constituent parts. Keep separate those technical areas of expertise which are required, whilst invigorating the whole department with a single strategic ethos of positive global engagement for freedoms of trade and thought, and freedoms from poverty and oppression – all of which can be implemented with an eye on UK interests. The worst that could happen would be a diversion of aid into irresponsible commercial benefit, military purposes, or environmental damage, or to focus on undeserving people or places for purely political reasons. Much should be learnt from similar mergers in Canada, Australia, and Sweden in the past decade where aid expertise has often been lost to budget cuts, and new stripped-down departments have been left at the mercy of contractors with little incentive to diversify approaches, innovate, or deliver value for money.

Since its foundation in 1997, DfID has done incredible work in putting the UK centre-stage as an international development leader. Post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain needs a comprehensive, aligned, and strategic, international offering. A new FCDO “super department” can deliver this, if it is well thought through and strongly led.

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