Merging the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office

Jack Clayton discusses the recent government decision to merge the Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The merging of the Department for International Development (DfID) into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is of little surprise. When a Conservative government is in power the possibility is often mooted. Indeed, all of them have merged DfID except Cameron’s, if including its formerly Ministry of Overseas Development. It is certainly unsurprising to have happened under Johnson’s government, which includes Rees-Mogg as a minister, who previously pressured the former prime minister May to cut foreign aid after the Oxfam abuse scandal. For over a year, 25% of the DfID budget has been managed by the FCO, and despite the government’s state of chaos in policy decisions around coronavirus, merging DfID was an orchestrated one. It is not a ploy to create a distraction, but the progressing of a nationalist agenda.

The left is generally united in outrage. Criticising the merging of a department dedicated to poverty reduction and helping the most vulnerable around the world is an understandable reaction. It is highly likely that abolishing DfID will be detrimental to the world’s poorest, particularly during a global pandemic with fewer resources to manage. However, it is a long overdue chance to meaningfully reflect on how international aid is used, how effective it has been, and ultimately, produce ideas about how a Labour government would recreate and improve it. This is a delicate discussion for progressives that is usually avoided. Nevertheless, there are problems in the culture, practises and effectiveness of aid work that have been insufficiently addressed. I saw it first-hand when working on the 90% funded DfID International Citizens Service (ICS) programme, where deep-rooted problems in the aid sector arose.

An immediate challenge to improving international aid is how debate is conducted to establish its core purpose. Frustratingly, national debate rarely goes much beyond critics saying aid is a waste of money that should be spent on something British, such as yachts or maybe the NHS (expect to hear that more as we move closer towards Brexit), whilst proponents claim that giving aid is morally right and improves Britain’s global standing. Both arguments forget that the priority of aid is to tackle the multiple factors causing poverty. One misrepresents aid as an opportunity cost that could be spent on more direct British interests, the other emphasises reputation enhancement and feeling good about ourselves, instead of the collective benefits. Effective altruism is good if it has a tangible impact, but if aid produces little more than noble gestures, it risks overlooking what is actually achieved, or not achieved, and if aid is used efficiently.

A consequence of poor discourse is that broad measurements of aid’s success are created that lack strategy or succinct objectives. This only deepens the challenges of making improvements. The current 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the United Nations (UN) in 2015 were made to be achieved by 2030. The first goal is “to end poverty”, which is unlikely. Although the Sustainable Development Goals have clearer measurements than the previous Millennium Development Goals, such as monitoring the number of toilets in schools to improve sanitation, they remain too vague. According to research conducted by the scientific journal, Nature, the second UN goal, to “end hunger” is already unlikely to be met less than five years since ratification. A more detailed long-term strategy would help deliver better small programmes with more direction towards the strategy, instead of chasing vague goals that lead to bad decisions and expensive symbolic projects with limited impact.

Calling for more efficiency and focus, however, can make aid proponents and workers in the sector defensive because it can sound synonymous with cuts, which is not the answer. This defensive attitude, therefore, encourages a culture amongst aid workers that is resistant to change and honestly reflecting on the results of their work. It risks encouraging a counterintuitive mindset of overpraise for addressing international development that does not accurately assess the effectiveness of the work.

Drawing from personal experience, the context and culture of developing nations perhaps should be more weighted when pursuing universal long-term goals that differ from country to country in how realistic they are. Although eradicating poverty and HIV would be indisputably good, more must be done to understand the specific challenges in achieving such feats in developing nations that have their own unique histories. I worked in a former British colony in Africa, teaching in youth centres and schools about HIV and STD prevention, gender inequality, environmentalism, and mental health. These were difficult topics to address in a culturally religious and socially conservative country, but even before teaching began, there were structural problems which needed, and still need to be recognised.

There was a lack of ethnic diversity in our British team, which should have been considered more in the context of the country we were in. Although there were more women than men on the project, one-fifth of the British team was Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME). More should be done to increase BAME numbers as it will improve the sector’s work. A group of predominantly white people going to a country with colonial history can inadvertently provoke tension with native colleagues and the local community if the work feels more forceful than collaborative.

We were not met with hostility. Indeed, the family I lived with were hospitable and kind. However, when cultural disagreements occurred, for example, about a time to begin work because our native colleagues arrived at different times to us, this created divisions. Both groups found it disrespectful to criticise each other’s customs. That is not to say that some did not care about the work. Everybody wanted the programme to succeed. Nevertheless, these disagreements affected our work in devising lessons and workshops for communities where health information is harder to access and it consumed more of our time and budget. Others I have spoken to who worked in different ICS programmes had similar experiences. A better understanding of the context and culture of developing countries could remedy unintentional miscommunication and sentiments that aid is an exercise of Westerners going to poorer countries to tell natives how to live. Hopefully, this could make aid more empowering, instead of appearing like “white saviour” initiatives, which David Lammy MP has expressed concerns about. Additionally, diversifying the aid sector in its ethnic and class personnel could help improve cohesion.

Perhaps the trickiest problem that progressives have yet to articulate a coherent plan on, is tackling sexual abuse in the aid sector. Covering abuse only does a disservice to aid and acknowledging the problem by taking swift action to show it has no place is required. Sadly, there were incidents of abuse during the programme I was on. I was not one of the victims, but I was dismayed by how it was handled, particularly as it was an issue the programme was supposed to tackle. The details of the cases will not be disclosed, but there were notably few mechanisms in place to address these serious incidents. A formal process and support for victims to discretely voice distressing problems were lacking.

Furthermore, there was little monitoring and reporting to the main British office, meaning the programme operated like a self-regulating entity. It was unethical, and the UK office only knew about the details of the problems when I returned to report it with help from other British co-workers. This reflected the wider dysfunctionality of the aid sector caused by charities being worried about money and consequently hiding abuse out of fear of losing funding. Even a native victim was reluctant for action to be taken because she feared her community would lose investment. After I reported the abuses, an internal investigation subsequently meant reprimands were issued. However, I was unconvinced that the organisation could sincerely self-assess and reform. I saw it necessary to seek further help from a relevant parliamentarian who referred my complaints to the Charity Commission to launch an independent investigation. This is ongoing.

Yet the soon to be, Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office is wrong. Critics rightly highlighted that transparency will only worsen with a more transactional approach to aid dressed up as security and trade orientated. Johnson emphasised the need to prioritise security interests, which is no bad thing if it is sincere. He argued that more aid should be sent to Ukraine and the Balkans to protect them from the severe Russian threat. Aid and security should go hand in hand, and militaries are often vital for disaster relief operations. However, the government simultaneously sends aid to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen whilst the Department for International Trade has played a significant role in fuelling it by selling £5.3bn of arms to Saudi Arabia. Their appeal to make aid and security interconnected is subsequently hollow. Moreover, there are accusations of sales continuing despite a court ruling a year ago that they are unlawful because of the human rights abuses they contributed to. Poverty, and the problems exacerbating it: disease; poor healthcare, famine, poor education, climate change, crime, violence, particularly towards women, and human rights violations, are security matters. These issues harm livelihoods and human security, even displacing people.

The impending merger is a reckless decision during a pandemic that is affecting the world’s poorest most. It also adds insult to injury considering Johnson’s claim to care about the inequalities faced by black people amid the Black Lives Matter protests. But with calls for more awareness of colonial history, progressives should remember that we all have more to learn. Doing so will improve the crucial work that aid can do.

Jack Clayton is the secretary of the Young Fabian International Network.

He tweets at @claytonj944

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