Philippe Lefevre discusses the recent merger between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department of International Development (DFID) into the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office.
The recent proposals of a merger between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department of International Development (DFID) into the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office has rightly been lambasted from all corner of the political spectrum. Former Prime Ministers, Leaders of parties, and MPs have seen this merger as threatening Britain’s role as one of the strongest aid-giving countries and its soft-power. However, for all the criticism of the merger, the one aspect not discussed but most important, is that of the money. The FCO has for too long been running on proverbial fumes, and in the absence of engaging with this, the conservative government has decided to compromise one of the most successful parts of British foreign engagement, in a hope to hide its failings in other areas.
Firstly, let us start with why the UK has a Development office. Through its creation under the Blair administration and the International Aid Act of 2002 DFID was there to help spend the huge aid budget, 0.7% of GDP, to alleviating poverty and suffering across the world. However, to call this purely altruistic hides some of the key benefits of development agencies, soft power and structural changes. Development agencies, such as USAID or GIZ (Germany) create incredible and unparalleled opportunities to wave flags on food bags whilst also supporting the people of the country they live in. The point of having a separate office for this is a recognition of the project-based lifestyle development agencies have, which simply do not fit with the same role as a Foreign Office has.
Now, let us look at the FCO’s failures. Through the Lowy Institutes Global diplomatic index, we can see the UK steadily dropping in the rankings, from lack of postings, to staff, to operations, to not even feature in the top 10 anymore. For a country going through the throes of “Global Britain”, this is truly lamentable. Why is this? Well in this authors opinion it is the simple fact that other countries put more importance and money into their foreign ministries and reap the rewards of this. If the UK is to attempt to open more embassies, expand its horizons, and truly engage globally again, it must do the same. Almost every top foreign ministry across the world spends far in excess of the UK per GDP, and any future UK administration must push to do the same.
Turning back to the merger, would this solve the money issue? No, and that is once again due to the project-based administration of DFID, which will take time to integrate into the FCO structure. This merger is by no means one of equals, and as many as commented on it before, it is more as a “hostile takeover” of DFID by the FCO. The idea of having one budget, one permanent secretary and one minister, as elaborated by Dominic Raab, already brings to the forefront some serious administrative problems that require planning far in excess of what this current administration has shown.
However, the merger does begin to solve many other issues, and this should also be understood. Problems of communication across all the parts of Britain’s foreign facing ministries, the Ministry of Defence, International Trade, FCO, and DFID, have contributed to failures to strategize and operationalise in our foreign affairs. This “superministry”, whilst it will contain its own communication teething problems, goes some way to solving this.
Furthermore, we must not pretend like the UK is alone in this type of merger, or that it necessarily kills Britain’s good standing in the development community. Canada has embarked on a similar route these past several years and have continued to be highly regarded in its development work. Similarly, France, with one of the best and most efficient foreign ministries behind only China and the US, has distributed most of its ODA through its Ministry of Foreign and European affairs. Nevertheless, they are exceptions to the rule.
To keep both ministries separate, to put more funding into the Foreign Office, and begin a concerted reform of foreign facing ministerial communication, would be more effective, productive, and save far more tax-payer money than a botched merger ever could.