Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to merge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Development (DFID) was long-expected but the timing took many by surprise. Simon McGee, who served as press secretary and head of news in both ministries, predicts a difficult gestation for the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
THE innate rivalry, and in some cases intense animosity, between the FCO and DFID was well illustrated when I announced to my colleagues at DFID in 2015 that I would be leaving to join the FCO as press secretary to the Foreign Secretary; some regarded me as if I had announced my defection to Moscow. One senior DFID official whom I respected enormously took me aside to remind me that diplomats were all talk, no action and totally amoral. Meanwhile, a friend at the FCO texted congratulations for leaving a wasteful, unpatriotic NGO. You can therefore well imagine how last month’s news that both departments would be merged – or that one would become the subject of a hostile takeover by the other – was received by staff. The lack of notice, even to senior officials, that No 10 was indeed going to pull the trigger on the new department while Britain was still effectively on COVID-19 lockdown was met with surprise. At DFID there were a few tears, some anger and lots of uncertainty about Britain’s commitment to development; most FCO types were content in principle but mostly concerned about how a new department would work in practice and how to deal with their understandably upset colleagues.
So what is the case for the merger? The Prime Minister’s announcement on 16 June majored on coordination between different Whitehall departments operating in essentially the same international ecosystem and of the merger leading to a greater focus on national self-interest as well as global good; Johnson signalled that more of Britain’s development aid should be spent in security hotspots Ukraineand the Balkans, and less in Zambiaand Tanzania. Crucially, there was no u-turn on the UK’s commitment to spending: 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income target on aid, enshrined in law by the Coalition Government in 2015, but it is hard to see the definition of what constitutes aid remaining untouched. The announcement was also clearly about the politics of aid, as Johnson’s less-scripted remarks in the questions that followed his House of Commons statement confirmed when he spoke of the merger leading to the end of DFID as “some giant cashpoint in the sky.” Unsurprisingly, many aid-hostile newspapers celebrated the announcement for bringing to heel a department long viewed as the epitome of government waste.
Greater alignment between foreign policy goals and development aims is to be applauded, and a more efficient and effective organisation for delivering it is not necessarily a bad thing either. But the announcement, which referred to the need to end the days of left and right hands operating independently of each other, ignores many of the lessons of the last decade – incidentally, Conservative-led – of development spending.
The first is that the announcement did not take account of the very considerable coordination that already exists, both in London and on the ground. Johnson’s statement made no mention at all of the National Security Council, established by David Cameron in 2010 to provide leadership and coordination on all matters diplomatic, development and defence under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. While it was not always a seamless organ it almost certainly extinguished more turf wars than it started and seemed to me to be a sensible way to run the show: set the strategic direction jointly and then let the departments and agencies get on with what they are good at. It also ignores the fact that FCO and DFID missions have been operating on the ‘One HMG’ platform for years. At first this was more about sharing resources and IT, but it has evolved in many places into a wider one team mindset. The UK mission in the Nigerian capital Abuja, for instance, not only has FCO, DFID, defence, trade and law enforcement staff co-located in one large modern office building; the whole thing is also led by FCO High Commissioner Catriona Laing who is a previous DFID head of office in Sudan. And many others have made that transition. That is not to pretend that there aren’t very often stresses and strains at a local level; one ex-FCO senior ambassador I spoke with about the merger cited a long list of gripes with DFID counterparts. But many of the relationships that I witnessed between FCO and DFID at mission-level were first-class and respectful of each other’s expertise, and most were certainly no worse than many testy relationships between heads and deputy heads of mission.
Relationships and cultural differences aside, what of the principal case that a merger will improve, rather than diminish, Britain’s ability to achieve maximum impact with each and every pound spent? If that is genuinely the aim I find it hard to see how a merger will achieve that; there was certainly little in the statement to explain how it would. DFID under successive Conservative secretaries of state since 2010 was under constant and almost ruthless pressure to root out waste, maximise outcomes and deliver long-term global benefits. And I felt that most of what DFID supported while I served there – beating Ebola in Sierra Leone, providing food and shelter for Syrian refugees, job creation in Nigeriaand schooling for girls in Pakistan– could all be seen through a self-serving prism too. My experience of watching aid being allocated was also that DFID was by the far the most rigorous at it, and that when FCO and other government departments did have small pockets of development assistance to spend they tended to handle it badly, often spending it on relationship-greasing projects that DFID would have never allowed. Tom Tugendhat, the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairman, put it well in the Commons debate following Johnson’s statement when he sought the Prime Minister’s assurance that just as an ambassador should never be asked to command a battle group, so diplomats untrained in handling millions of pounds should not be placed in charge of spending aid.
Of course, the greatest concern in development circles is that the merger is not about spending better but an attempt to water down the country’s existing commitment to spending aid in line with the official definition set out by the OECD’S Development Assistance Committee (DAC). It defines aid as having as its main objective as the promotion of welfare and economic development in developing countries and expressly excludes activity promoting a donor’s security interests. Johnson’s talk of Ukraine and the Balkans virtually confirms this reassessment, generating the risk that civil servants will be placed under increasing pressure to bend the DAC definition to breaking point. If that is indeed the case, and there are strong arguments for diverting limited resources towards the European neighbourhood, it would be better to stop pretending that the UK remains committed to the DAC definition.
Finally, I can’t help but feel that the manner and timing of the announcement smacked of un-joined up thinking. If the point of the merger is to increase coordination with foreign policy and defence strands, why was it plucked out of the still-ongoing review into Global Britain being conducted by respected academic and No 10 foreign affairs brain John Bew? The FCO should be focused right now on ensuring that the end of the post-Brexit transition period is as least disruptive as possible and on supporting the Department for International Trade in landing free trade deals. Meanwhile, DFID is working flat out to rein in its spending as the COVID-19 recession leads to 0.7 per cent of GNI shrinking budgets dramatically. Instead, both departments will be distracted by a long 18-month transition period culminating in the birth of a new department in early 2022. Now hardly seems like the time for removal men and redecorators on King Charles Street.