Boris Johnson has announced a massive reshaping of Britain’s foreign policy priorities by merging the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office under the leadership of the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab.
“Distinctions between diplomacy and overseas development are artificial and outdated,” the prime minister claimed, as he announced the change to MPs.
The government is to maintain its statutory commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid, but the blending of the two departments will inevitably require greater linkage between the UK’s aid, security and commercial interests.
Dfid’s £15.2bn budget dwarfs that of the Foreign Office, and diplomats have jealously eyed the scale of the guaranteed Dfid spending ever since the two departments were split by the Labour government in 1997.
The new department – to be called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – is expected to be formed in the autumn, well before the government has completed its integrated foreign and defence security review.
The review was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but officials said the need to cooperate across Whitehall departments internationally in recent weeks had only underlined the need for greater cohesion.
Johnson justified the decision, saying: “Dfid outspends the Foreign Office more than four times over and yet no single decision-maker in either department is able to unite our efforts or take a comprehensive overview.
“We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security. We give 10 times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling.
“Regardless of the merits of these decisions, no single department is currently empowered to judge whether they make sense or not: and so we tolerate an inherent risk of our left and right hands working independently.”
Regional trade commissioners working in the business department are also to be brought into the revamped department.
It was made clear Raab will be in the cabinet but it was not clear if Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Britain’s last international development secretary, will retain a cabinet post after the autumn.
The announcement was condemned immediately as turning Britain’s back on the world’s poorest.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, responding to Johnson’s statement, described it as “the tactics of pure distraction”, against a backdrop of rising unemployment and one of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the world.
“Abolishing Dfid diminishes Britain’s place in the world,” he said. “There is no rationale for making this statement today. The prime minister should stop these distractions, and get on with the job of tackling the health and economic crisis we currently face.”
Patrick Watt, Christian Aid’s director of policy, public affairs and campaigns, called the decision “an act of political vandalism”, saying it “threatens a double whammy to people in poverty, and to our standing in the world”.
The timing of the merger long favoured by Johnson was justified on the grounds that the UK needed to be “match fit” for major international events starting this autumn, including the 75th anniversary anniversary of the United Nations, and British chairmanship next year of the UN climate change conference.
The new department will be more joined up, focused and coherent, officials said.
The prime minister said: “The foreign secretary will be empowered to decide which countries receive – or cease to receive – British aid, while delivering a single UK strategy for each country, overseen by the national security council, which I chair.”
“Those strategies will be implemented on the ground by the relevant UK ambassador, who will lead all of the government’s work in the host country. We will learn from the examples of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, all of whom run their development programmes from their foreign ministries.”
In practice, the Foreign Office has been slowly taking control of the aid budget, either by directly spending more of its cash, or in country diplomats being put in charge of the budget.
In 2019, for example, the Foreign Office spent £680m of the overseas aid budget – more than double the £300m it spent in 2013 and equivalent to 40% of the FCO’s core departmental allocation of £1.7bn in 2018–19.
The Foreign Office spending has also been more directed at middle income income countries with whom the UK wishes to strengthen diplomatic ties, as opposed to poverty reduction in low-income countries, the core Dfid business
More than a quarter of the UK aid budget is now not spent by Dfid, but other government departments including the Ministry of Defence. It is argued security is a precondition for poverty reduction.
As part of the last reshuffle, the Foreign Office and aid department ministers were required to “double hat”, working in both departments. The new department will have only one permanent secretary, and no redundancies are expected.
Although officials stressed the arrangement was a merger and not a takeover, few aid specialists have advocated the end of Dfid as a standalone department, saying the focus of the aid budget on poverty reduction, unsullied by UK commercial interests, contributed to UK’s soft power and reputation for aid generosity.
The UK aid budget has been widely praised as being both more effective and transparent than Foreign Office spending of the aid budget. But officials say the trend worldwide has been for aid and foreign office budgets to be integrated.