DfiD merger will 'severely impact' UK's status, concludes cross-party inquiry

By Tracy McVeigh

A cross-party committee of MPs has said Boris Johnson’s “rushed and impulsive” merger of the Foreign Office and Department for International Development will “severely impact the UK’s superpower status”.

Attacking the prime minister’s decision as “coming out of the blue”, a report published on Thursday from the Commons international development committee (IDC) said it was likely it would be disruptive and “incredibly costly”.

Publishing its final report from its inquiry into the effectiveness of UK aid, the IDC raised concerns about the lack of consultation ahead of the merger and asked for a full explanation to be given to parliament, including why the decision had been taken amid a pandemic and when the UK aid budget was facing multi-billion-pound cuts. The committee also called on the government to outline its plans for DfiD’s staff and experts and to clarify how its “refreshed international policy” would help towards meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals, to which the UK is committed.

In an interim report on 9 June, the IDC had recommended the retention of DfiD. Just 10 days later, the prime minister announced the merger with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The committee outlined the “glowing reviews” it had heard of DfiD’s work to help the world’s poorest people and the department’s retention of development specialists which, the IDC said, was essential to the UK’s position as a power on the world stage. Expressing fears over whether poverty reduction would remain a key goal of government policy, the report called for a cabinet minister for development to be retained.

There are fears the UK merger may reflect the worst aspects of similar, costly mergers in Australia and Canada. Both experienced a loss of experts that damaged those countries’ international reputations. The IDC welcomed Johnson’s commitment to continue spending 0.7% of gross national income on development, but called for a transparency in the government’s future aid strategy.

It expressed concerns over scrutiny and recommended the Commons create a new select committee to oversee UK aid spending.

The IDC chair, the Labour MP Sarah Champion, said: “We have now come to the end of our deep-dive into how effective UK aid is. Our evidence shows DfiD has a glowing reputation overseas, its expertise envied and its aid programmes delivering a lifeline for many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. DfiD gives the UK considerable international standing and is something we should all be proud of.

“It is deeply disappointing that the government failed to recognise these strengths as it made its impulsive move to have the FCO swallow up DfiD. Now we are on the brink of this expertise being lost and our international reputation being damaged beyond repair.

“The fact that there was no consultation, seemingly no evidence as to why this is a good idea, really lets down the communities that UK aid is there to support.”

The merger has caused widespread dismay among international development groups and many praised the IDC’s findings. Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond, a UK network for NGOs, said the report called into question not only the timing but “the entire rationale of the government’s decision to merge DfiD and the FCO”.

Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam GB, said: “The committee is right – the demise of DfiD is likely to do real damage to the world’s poorest people and to Britain’s international standing.

“British people expect our aid to be used for the benefit of those without clean water, medicines or food. But the timing and presentation of this merger clearly indicate that it was primarily about politics rather than becoming more effective in helping people to escape poverty.”