DfID is a world leader in tackling poverty. Our international standing is weakened without it

By Mikaela Gavas and Rachael Calleja

The merger of the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) runs the very real risk of putting an abrupt end to the UK’s “superpower” status in international development.

Gone will be DfID’s clear articulation of purpose — the reduction and eventual elimination of global poverty — which has been a powerful motivating, unifying, and guiding force.

While the prime minister announced that the FCO and DfID would merge into a “powerful, single integrated voice”, in practice DfID will undoubtedly lose its authority, influence and unique identity.

Comparative case studies of similar mergers in Australia and Canada suggest that development ministries operate best when they are able to act autonomously. This is likely to be because structure is complemented by organisational features such as senior cabinet representation, special parliamentary committees devoted to development, and political prioritisation of development that can move past competing interests and foster the conditions for donor effectiveness.

The risk of a merger is always that developmental priorities and outcomes will be subordinated to other foreign policy interests. Without strong political leadership for development within the new departmental arrangement, the UK risks losing the soft power and international clout that came from an independent, results-oriented, and effective DfID.

The merger risks deteriorating DfID’s focus on poverty reduction as the driver of development engagement. The 2002 International Development Act enshrined in law the single purpose of aid spending: every development assistance project or programme must by law either further sustainable development or promote the welfare of people and be likely to contribute to the reduction of poverty.

The act also made it illegal for UK aid to be tied to the use of British goods and services. This was a clear signal that DfID’s primary purpose was as a development agency, rather than as a tool for furthering UK commercial or political interests. It is unclear how poverty reduction will feature in the new departmental structure. This is particularly concerning given Boris Johnson’s statement about prioritising countries like Ukraine over some of the poorest countries in the world like Zambia, where more than half of the population live on less than $1.90 (£1.50) a day. It is fair to say that we can expect more cooperation and assistance to be tightly bound with UK interests.

DfID has a strong reputation as a global leader in development cooperation, and as an effective development actor. In contrast, FCO and other departments have been shown to be less transparent and effective in their development engagements. It is unclear that the policies, processes, and systems that make DfID an effective and transparent part of the UK government will survive the merger. The announced closure of the House of Commons international development committee will eliminate opportunities for dedicated parliamentary oversight of international development spending and action.

DfID also has distinct administrative and professional career structures and cadres. The high quality of professional staff is a key factor enabling the department to engage effectively in policy dialogue and debate with other donors and with developing countries. We know from other countries that retaining this expertise following a merger is not always a given — Australia lost 14% of former AusAID staff through voluntary redundancies in the months following the merger of its aid agency into the foreign ministry.

In this most challenging hour, when the unprecedented threat of the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to unravel the huge achievements of international development gained over the past two decades, the FCO/DfID merger will substantially weaken the UK’s global standing as a leading development actor.

If the UK government wants to project itself as being a progressive force for good in the world, it should preserve the best of British development policy. In any event, it will be a long slog for Britain’s development programme to regain the international stature it once had.

Mikaela Gavas is co-director of development cooperation in Europe and senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD) and Rachael Calleja is a CGD senior research associate