Should we be more concerned about the DFID/FCO merger? – Liberal Article

Should we be more concerned about the DFID/FCO merger? – Liberal Article

Boris Johnson finally announced last week that DFID was for the chop; an event that was always a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. The move is being craftily framed as a merger rather than a takeover. 

This is somewhat clear in the naming process. Officially, in September 2020 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID) will merge into a new department: the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). 

But should we be more concerned about this so-called ‘merger’?

The decision has already attracted widespread anger among politicians of all parties, including from three former PM’s. David Cameron’s assessment is particularly damning, arguing that the UK will “lose respect overseas”. Nonetheless, Boris Johnson has justified this monumental decision as an opportunity to “unite our aid with our diplomacy”.

I somewhat agree with this sentiment. The example of Pakistan, which has received over £1 Billion from the DFID since 2017, stands out. They would have no impetus at all to consider issues the Foreign Office wishes to promote on a global stage (e.g. LGBTQ+ issues) if development funding from the UK was not under threat. This presents a clear conflict between our diplomatic and development aims. Integrating the two departments could allow for a much more coherent system. A system where Britain’s diplomatic aims are properly considered before aid is granted.

However, the shoddy execution of this merger so far makes me very sceptical. For example, the  3,600 current DFID Civil Servants found out that their department was being abolished almost two hours after the press and the public. Being the last to know about such a personally impactful decision was a real kick in the teeth for DFID staff, who are often regarded as the best of Whitehall.

This, alongside the likelihood of a messy merger, will undoubtedly lead to a brain drain of talented DFID experts to the third sector. A prospect that even some Conservative MPs agree with e.g. Andrew Mitchell, who argues that “Senior Figures will be poached – Britain’s loss will be Geneva or New York’s gain”. I couldn’t agree more. Losing these experts will be bad for the Government’s ‘Global Britain’ agenda and bad for our wider development goals.

The complete lack of instruction to civil servants on how to carry out this merger is further evidence of mismanagement on the Government’s part. The absence of a coherent integration plan, as was the case during the last significant merger under Theresa May, is bordering on negligence. Leaving it up to civil servants to navigate the merger of two extremely significant departments, whilst dealing with the dual threat of Brexit and COVID-19 is worryingly reckless.

The Government’s willingness to blast ahead despite the significant drawbacks reeks of political opportunism. It is widely accepted that this merger has been dominated by a wish to quell rebellion among Conservative backbenchers who have long been critical of Government expenditure on foreign aid. It is important to note however that the Government remains committed to spending 0.7% of UK GDP on international development. 

The compromise it seems is that aid will now be used as part of a carrot and stick approach, where diplomatic aims take precedence over development goals. Again, I agree with this sentiment in principle. However, basing a decision on fear of backbench rebellion rather than what is best for the British people, sets this merger up for failure.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of this whole saga is the timing. Announcing a shake-up of this magnitude during the UK’s most crippling crisis since the Second World War is certainly straight out of the Malcolm Tucker playbook. As is becoming increasingly common, the Government has once again swerved appropriate amounts of scrutiny and criticism by burying a monumental decision in the midst of a crisis. 

To get back to the question at hand. The short answer is, yes, we should be more concerned about this merger. Johnson will manage to force through this merger with little scrutiny, with potentially harmful effects on existing expertise in Government, global development projects and consequently, Britain’s standing in the world. With the last few months being particularly difficult for the Government, Boris Johnson would do well to act with prudence and caution going forward.

Written by Guest Liberal Writer, Jeeves Sidhu

Point of Information

Yes. But with the manner, not the fact — a Conservative response 

Firstly, I would like to warmly welcome Jeeves to POI, and say that this was a fantastic first article.

As for the talking points, I broadly agree. He is correct in saying that this seems last minute and that the failure of notice is poor form. Furthermore, he is also right in terms of timing. Most certainly, this is a classic misdirection tactic; attempting to push through something seemingly mundane (it’s not), whilst the media is full of high-octane news. Johnson will achieve this misdirection as the expense of sound execution.

Also, it is certainly a fact of life, that most of Britain’s best brains probably work in the third sector. Put simply, the remuneration is better.

My disagreement with the article is this: aid has always been, and always will be, an instrument of soft-power. I do not think that only now with this merger diplomatic aims take precedence over development goals. Aid has never been used in a solely altruistic manner; it is for regional influence. It is not directly ‘money for power’. However, the threat of the removal of a fiscal lifeline achieves just that. This merger will most probably calcify this already existing practice.

For this reason, I am not overly concerned about the merger. But I am more concerned with the manner in which it has been done. This political gamesmanship is an attempt to avoid proper democratic scrutiny, and it will probably work. Furthermore, those civil servants set to lose should have been afforded the dignity of notice.

Written by Conservative Writer, Alexander Dennis

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Abandoning responsibility for strategy, but will it have the results? – a Labour response

We can all agree that this reform has been poorly carried out. Both through drowning its news amongst that of the global crisis and the shockingly late notice to the civil servants in Whitehall. In terms of the meaning of this emergence, it shows that Boris Johnson is trying to brace Britain for post-COVID-19 and Brexit. 

Since there is no confident vision of the UK’s role in the world after Brexit, this emergence is part of the “Global Britain” agenda. Therefore, I have to agree with the Conservative response. Aid is one of the greatest sources of soft-power which will be used to support Britain’s interests- regardless of the deal agreed with the EU. The need for aid means that many countries will become submissive to UK interests. This ensures that, no matter how Brexit negotiations go, the UK will still have the upper hand in trading and diplomacy with those countries seeking its aid. 

Worryingly, it does come at a critical time, when developing countries most need the aid. In the past, much of the DFID budget was going to projects which did not necessarily meet the principles for funding. However, money was still pumped out to meet the required 0.7% UK GDP. Now, that the pandemic has caused economic turmoil worldwide, this budget is needed more than ever to recover countries from the economic and social collapses; funding that most countries will not receive if they are not of UK interest.  

The emergence has been done as a way to increase the FCO budget without having to further burden government spending. A way of spending more on security and diplomatic aims whilst pretending to still carry out its development duties. 

To answer the article’s question: yes we should be concerned. Concerned because of the impact this will have on post-pandemic countries reliant on UK aid; the backlash this could have on Britain’s role in the world; and the way this merger is being blindly executed. 

Written by Guest Labour Writer, Giulia Valentina

Jeeves Sidhu
Liberal writer | Website

Hello I’m Jeeves, one of POI’s new Liberal Political Writers and currently a final year politics student at the University of Exeter. For the past two years I’ve also served as Founder & President of Model Westminster Exeter, a branch of national political engagement charity Model Westminster.

Alexander Dennis
Political writer | Website

Hello, I’m Alexander Dennis, and I am going into my third undergraduate year at the University of Exeter. I study Politics & International Relations, with a possible year abroad hanging in the balance. My particular interest in politics really started in early 2016: yes, it was ‘Brexit’. I was at once intrigued, and confused, by something so critical. From that baptism, I have become somewhat addicted to political discussion, intrigued by issues ranging from drugs policy to taxation. So I followed my nose: I applied for a degree in the subject.

Giulia Valentina
Labour Writer | Website

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