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Getting on board with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Written by Dan Sharp

The recent announcement of the merger of the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was met with surprise and widespread criticism – from activists, experts, parliamentarians and even three former prime ministers.

But the truth is that the creation of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) was half a decade in the making, and in spite of the criticism, there are examples of how merged diplomacy and development departments can work well to deliver development impact. It's time for development advocates to get on board and help steer the UK forward.

Five years ago, the Treasury presented a new aid strategy to parliament – signalling that international development was no longer the preserve of DFID. That strategy recast development in a narrative of national interest and led to a significant diversification of spending – from the creation of cross-government funds to a commitment to spend up to 30% of UK aid outside DFID.

Thereafter successive DFID Secretaries – from Justine Greening to Priti Patel – lobbied to amend the international Development Assistance Committee (DAC) rules on what qualifies as aid, and in 2017 the government introduced joint junior DFID-FCO ministers. Many viewed this as a move to appease calls (including from then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson) for a formal merger of DFID and the FCO.

However, at last year’s UK General Election (with Johnson now at the helm) the Conservatives were the only major party not to commit to retaining DFID. By February, all junior DFID and FCO ministers held joint portfolios, and by March DFID country offices had been instructed to report into the FCO. Then on 16 June, came Johnson's merger announcement.

Over the past five years, debate has fixated on defending DFID, maintaining the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on development and adhering to the DAC rules.

Each of these is undoubtedly important; but the DAC rules are internationally agreed, and the 0.7% commitment is enshrined in law – a law that was proposed by a Liberal Democrat MP during a Conservative premiership and only passed with cross-party, notably Labour, support.

Merging DFID was the only ask in the gift of the government. With the merger now set for September, it is time to break free from the paralysis of the past five years and focus on redoubling efforts to deliver development impact.

Rethinking priorities

Perhaps ironically, the merger may give international development political breathing space after having been incubated from debate in the arms of the FCO. After so much energy has been expended on process, the creation of the FCDO, alongside the forthcoming Integrated Review of foreign policy, provides an opportunity to rethink the UK’s development priorities and its USP.

Setting a clear strategic vision for the FCDO must be prioritised. Impending cuts to aid also add urgency to the need to craft a compelling narrative for sustainable development that secures buy-in from politicians and the public alike. Attention, however, must also be given to how the new department is shaped so that it delivers in the long-term for the world’s most vulnerable.

The experience of countries that already have effective merged diplomacy and development departments can inform this.

Many of the findings identified in ODI’s latest research into how governments govern and deliver international development were echoed in insights shared by senior officials from the governments of Canada and the Netherlands during a recent ODI event on the merger.

Significantly, the discussion highlighted the ability of merged departments to overcome bureaucratic silos and deliver policies that address today’s multi-faceted global challenges.

Both ODI research and the officials’ testimonies during the event resonate with calls from civil society for the UK government to ensure dedicated ministerial representation and robust accountability, including through a dedicated parliamentary committee.

On the latter, the recent spectacle of the Foreign Affairs Committee discussing development made the case for committee expertise succinctly.

On the former, the Netherlands’ approach of ‘one ministry, two ministers’ is noteworthy; the Foreign Minister has responsibility for overall policy but the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development controls the aid budget, meaning they must work together to ensure objectives are met. Lastly, during ODI’s event, both Canada and the Netherlands highlighted the importance of budget accountability and adherence to DAC rules.

Towards progress and cooperation

Beyond accountability mechanisms, it is crucial the FCDO harnesses and values development expertise. Relatedly, it will of course be critical to integrate the distinct working environments of DFID and the FCO to embed a positive workplace culture.

Some will argue that this is easy in hindsight. The truth is we must continually engage and adapt. Parliament’s International Development Committee demonstrated this perfectly. Days before the merger announcement, the Committee released a report calling for DFID to be maintained. Five weeks later it issued a further report, restating its position but setting out evidence-informed safeguards for the merger.

DFID is indeed a world leader, but it was created in the era of the Millennium Development Goals and we are now in the Decade of Delivery for the Sustainable Development Goals. The world today looks vastly different, and we must adapt to new approaches that transcend old aid paradigms, forge new forms of international cooperation and progress development as a genuinely global issue.

The gear change from protest to advocacy may be uncomfortable for some, but the vehicle is in motion – and the engine has been running for five years. With the GPS about to be set, now is the time for development advocates to get on board to ensure the UK is headed in the right direction – towards a just, peaceful and sustainable world for all.