Coming to Boris’s Aid

19 June 2020

DRD Partner Duncan Fulton discusses the merge of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development – and asks if it is really such a bad idea after all.

Snapshot was given unique access* to this week’s No10 ‘Grid’ meeting, the gathering of spinners who pretend to control the Government’s news agenda.

“Schools are tricky – we don’t have a terribly good answer for why my kids can go to Primark but not to school”.

“And don’t go near holidays, we might be cancelling them”.

“We did statues”.

“An update on track and trace?”.

[Laughter]

“What about that footballer?”

“No, not Lineker – the school dinners one. Daniel Rashford”.

“We’ve already scheduled the U-turn for just before PMQs”.

“What about a Machinery of Government Change?”.

[Murmurs of approval]

“We could merge the FCO and DFID – that’ll get ‘em salivating. They won’t be able to help themselves”.

“It’s so blatantly obvious it just might work”.

And it did. This was a car-crash week for the Prime Minister that featured an actual car-crash for the Prime Minister, but it could have been even worse. A merger has been on the cards for some time, with extensive Whitehall wrangling since at least New Year, but the announcement looks suspiciously timed to wind-up the Twitterati and Westminster Watchers and distract – even for a day – from another week of Government clangers.

It’s quite an achievement to get Blair, Brown and Cameron to speak out against something. But speak out they did. Each of them, though, was quick to demonstrate different aspects of why the creation of the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) might not be the worst idea.

Blair saw aid and development assistance as key components of his doctrine of liberal interventionism – “we’ll very happily rebuild your bridges and homes, after we have bombed them in the name of a good cause.” Gordon Brown has a deeply held commitment to eradicating poverty, but seemed to look on to the number of £billions spent on aid as an end in itself. For Cameron, legislating to commit us to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid was an (extremely expensive) means to detoxify the Tory party at home, and an attempt to arrest our dwindling influence abroad.

Doing away with DFID, the story goes, is variously short-termist, ruinous to our standing in the world, and tantamount to putting millions of lives at risk. Or it is an important step in bringing greater coherence and alignment to our foreign policy. Where you stand probably largely depends on what you think of the PM and his motives.

In Snapshot’s humble opinion what the UK really needs is a joined-up foreign policy, and a strategy for achieving it, as we try and forge a new role in a changed world. At the moment the elements of development, defence, diplomacy and trade look out of kilter and unbalanced.

The FCO has existed on starvation rations for years, its influence in Whitehall eroded, its confidence shot. Many of the critical foreign policy decisions of the last 20 odd years (cf. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, China, Brexit) have been conceived in and run by No10. Trade was hived off in 2016. Meanwhile, the DFID budget has ballooned. Particularly in the absence of a clear leadership role for the FCO, policy priorities can be skewed with £15.2billion of ring-fenced budget per year.

While not the ‘Scandinavian NGO’ of the PM’s caricature, DFID has never quite seen itself as a fully-fledged part of Government – serving instead the nobler master of poverty reduction. Indeed, it long resisted the notion that the assistance provided by the UK should be branded “UKAID”: heaven forbid the recipients should be made aware of where it came from. It’s this sense of distance from specific UK objectives that stuck in Boris’s craw when he was Foreign Secretary.

DFID is undoubtedly highly respected in the development and diplomatic community for its expertise as well as its scale (after all we are the second biggest donor behind the US), and we do make a big difference in the world. But, just as Rishi Sunak is finding, it’s easy to be popular when you’ve been handing out large sums of money.

Significantly the PM has promised* to maintain the spending commitment on aid, but even before coronavirus plunged us into the deepest recession in our history, that was becoming politically much harder to justify. Bringing DFID more into the fold may quieten some of those voices calling for that money to be spent at home.

The FCO needed heft, and DFID needed better integration with the rest of Whitehall – the creation of FCDO may help. But ultimately, unless ‘Global Britain’ turns into strategy rather than a slogan, no machinery of government changes will amount to much.

For all those who fear that development is being de-prioritised, here’s a final thought.  Development may be ‘downgraded’ to an ‘Office’ and lose a dedicated Cabinet rank Minister – but when 96% of the FCDO’s budget will be development spend, far from being than an FCO takeover, DFID may well end up consuming its host.

Boris’s aid, Boris’s aid, Boris’s aid, Boris’s aid, LinkedIn