Boris Johnson has announced the merger of DFID into the FCO. He cites the need to fully integrate all arms of foreign policy into a single coherent whole as his motivation.
But the characterisation of DFID as a lone wolf or a “cash point in the sky” is entirely unfair and unmerited. DFID is one of the most transparent and effective development organisations in the world; and it has long known that development is politics and that politics is development.
The reason for the merger may not be anything to do with the delivery of foreign policy at all. It may be that it really serves the purposes of distraction from an increasing diversity of domestic political challenges for the Prime Minister, many of which are amplified by barely papered over divisions within his own party.
Those who believe in the innate value of a British development programme are appalled at the move. They argue – rightly – that a great deal of benefit for the UK and for others is wrapped up in a development programme which has become a world leader technically, politically and in terms of transparency and evidence of effect. But given that the decision is made, does it have to be all bad? And how can it be mitigated to the benefit of all?
The world – or at least our understanding of it – has changed. Security, development and the economy are three legs of the same stool. In reality there is no hard distinction between these issues in the lives of ordinary people everywhere who need (almost) everything to go well (almost) all the time. The real issue which muddies the waters in this move is to consider whose security and economy we are really talking about; and for what purpose?
The effect of the merger doesn’t have to be bad – for the UK or globally. But it does place the motivations of key actors at the heart of development related decision making rather than a legally mandated focus on – widely beneficial – poverty reduction. And UK already has a forum for integrating its efforts in the form of the National Security Council. So, it is not clear what neutering DFID will deliver by way of direct benefits.
The most likely effect will be the degradation of the overall effect of UK action on the global stage – especially in developing countries. The value of an independent DFID has been to force HMG teams the world over to make better choices based on stronger arguments for their preferred course of action. At the same time the UK will lose a significant soft power actor. Alongside the near terminal cash crisis at the British Council, the UK will lose two vital soft power means to engage with a large part of the world’s current and future decision makers. And finally, the management of UK development funds will move from an organisation which has been world leading to one which was never designed for the purpose; and which consistently rates at best mid-table in transparency and effectiveness leagues.
The UK spends 0.7% of its GDP on development. Although this is a contentious political target, it is worth recalling that what this means in practice is that we spend 99.3% of our GDP on ourselves. The entire UK annual development budget costs approximately the same as 45 miles of the new high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham.
The amount of money, then, is not the real concern. The issue is that British taxpayers do not see the real worth of what the development budget delivers for them. Supporters of a UK governmental development programme need to be able to mount a much better narrative for how poverty reduction both benefits others and benefits the UK. At the very least, a well-managed and targeted development programme helps to reduce instability and insecurity, reducing the push factors which drive migration and extremism. And a more rules-based, inclusive global economy would be one in which British business can thrive. We want the same thing as everyone else – better, more equitable economies which are not distorted by corruption, vested interests, conflict or pandemics.
What is required then is a better narrative, backed up by evidence, for how development and foreign policy objectives can be advanced together and to mutual benefit. But an overwhelming UK focus on its economy and its security could overshadow the need for mutually beneficial governance improvements at least on transparency and accountability; and will set back the real advances in citizen-state engagement to which DFID has contributed over the years.
For UK, the near-term path of least resistance will be to strike exclusive trade deals rather than to help build resilient societies with whom we can trade into the future. There is a substantial risk of being extractive rather than strategic which will entrench inequalities at home and elsewhere and threaten – not enhance – the UK’s prosperity and security.