The UK DFID-FCO merger: What might success look like?

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July 03, 2020

The UK DFID-FCO merger: What might success look like?

Photo: UN Women/Christopher Herwig

By Tim Boyes-Watson

Global Director, Alliances & Advocacy

Last Friday, Baroness Sugg asked the Steering Group of Civil Society representatives what success looks like in the merging of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development (DFID).

My answer, as a member of that Steering Group, was that I hoped for two things, which I have outlined below.

Clarity of purpose – Ending poverty and reducing inequality

There are positive opportunities that will flow from this merger. I appreciate some of the early statements from Dominic Raab on making the UK a “force for good” and helping the “bottom billion”, which are his words for the world’s poorest and most marginalised people.  This gives me hope that there will be a clear purpose for the new department focused on poverty reduction and social justice.

Dan Honing has described how DFID’s sense of mission, and the culture this drove, was a key factor in why it became a relative leader amongst official development agencies. In my view, scrutiny by the International Development Select Committee and Independent Commission on Aid Impact to further clarify and drive accountability for the clear purpose of poverty reduction reinforced DFID’s leadership and culture. That scrutiny uses value for money criteria which drives more downward accountability to the countries, communities and the primary beneficiaries of UK Aid.  This process is vital in seeking to close the broken feedback loop that exists due to the stark power imbalances between donors and the people the aid budget aims to help.

DFID, in line with development best practice, has promoted participatory planning with the communities and especially the most marginalised within them, when designing projects. The latter processes demand time and commitment, and most importantly, trust.  Breach of trust is one of civil society’s main concerns regarding cuts to existing DFID projects of 10-30%. We accept the need to cut the UK Aid budget because of a fall in income but believe we should first look to cut future projects, and only break our prior commitments as a last resort, or where communities can be involved in cutting or reprogramming to adapt to the pandemic.

So, success for me would be the new department articulating what being a “force for good” clearly means in relation to poverty and inequality, as well as embracing the participative and inclusive development approaches that are needed to achieve this. This would sustain the UK’s leadership and contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals and drive the culture of the new department.

The biggest potential benefit of the merger is greater alignment of the UK’s foreign and trade policy with its development policy, including its ability to influence how the multilateral system works on climate, corruption and debt. That will mean tough and vigorous debates within the department and with its friends outside the department, both from civil society and the private sector, when there are clear trade-offs between ending poverty and their different interests.  I believe ways can be found to take decisions which will advance the cause of poverty reduction and be in the mutual interest of the UK and the countries with which the new department will work. 

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

A focus on ending poverty and reducing inequality is the WHY and will significantly inform WHAT the new department should be about. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) will be key to HOW this is achieved.  I was heartened to hear at the Steering Group that this will be one of five key priorities affecting the design and intended culture of the new department post-merger.

Earlier this week, I expressed strong concerns about how the decision-making and communication of the merger smacked of racism, especially in the context of Black Lives Matters and a pandemic, which is revealing the health disparities caused by structural racism. The UK must take responsibility for our historic role in white supremacy when designing and articulating our future vision of what a “force for good” in the world means. International civil society organisations like my own are grappling with how to be anti-racist, and are becoming increasingly aware of our role in perpetuating racist and colonial frames and biases. 

Applying DEI to the new department’s strategy and decision-making will be vital in enabling it to achieve poverty reduction and operate in the mutual interest of the UK and its international partners.  It will also provide the competencies to apply the participative and inclusive approaches necessary to achieve poverty reduction. Through the integration of DEI, decision-making processes both in Whitehall and at country level can be designed in ways which involve those that represent the people and communities that UK Aid affects, while also addressing racism and unconscious bias.

In Conclusion

International assistance and DFID’s core purpose of poverty reduction is critical in responding to the pandemic and its severe consequences on the poorest countries and communities.  The inter-connectedness and interdependence of UK with other countries in the face of this health crisis, the economic crisis it has caused, and the climate crisis has never been clearer.  My hope is that this merger will truly align the UK’s ability to operate in the mutual interest of us all.

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