The death of DfID
Posted on 24th June, 2020 in Director's Blog
The Government’s decision to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whatever the claimed advantages in terms of policy coherence, Whitehall reorganisation and cost saving, does serious damage to Britain’s international reputation and influence, particularly in Africa which fears it will be significantly disadvantaged. This is bad news for both Britain and Africa.
I must declare an interest.
As head of a joint FCO-ODA department – the Economic Relations Dept – in 1997, I was closely involved with the original de-merger of ODA from the FCO, including the arguments over how responsibilities should be divided up. There was little problem over this at official level, where a pragmatic and amicable separation was quite easily agreed, as long as the issue was not elevated to the political level, where the rivalry between Robin Cook and Clare Short tended to make agreement harder rather than easier to obtain.
In retrospect, perhaps, the main mistake we made in those divorce proceedings was not to make British Ambassadors responsible for the aid spend in their countries, answering to both Secretaries of State. (This had been the case when the Ministry of Overseas Development was first set up in 1964 under Barbara Castle following decolonisation, and continued when it was merged into the FCO, as ODA, by the incoming Conservative Government in 1970.)
Nevertheless, as a British diplomat in Africa – as Deputy High Commissioner to Tanzania in the 1990s and High Commissioner to Ghana from 2008 – there was little difficulty in coordinating between the diplomatic and the aid side of our missions on the spot: all it needed was openness, mutual trust and shared objectives. The organisational arguments for merger are in my experience not overwhelmingly convincing, whatever the Prime Minister’s claims of diplomatic dissonance.
So it is the policy purpose of the merger that matters. And on that, the Prime Minister was very clear in his statement to the Commons yesterday. The distinction between development and diplomacy is ‘artificial and outdated’, he said. The objective of aid policy is to ‘serve the national interest’, no longer necessarily in the sense of reducing poverty and making the world safer and better off, but to ‘maximise our influence’ – the underlying purpose of the ‘Integration Review’ of foreign, defence and development policy of which this merger is a surprisingly early fruit.
A pity then that this move will reduce British influence in Africa, not increase it. How so?
A little history helps explain. Britain once ruled large parts of Africa. This has left a mixed, complex and sensitive legacy. Language, law and education follow British traditions in many places. The BBC, the Royal Family and the British Council are thought of with affection and sometimes respect. But British government policies and British business investments are viewed more critically, in terms of whether they meet African countries’ own national interests. And many Africans remain particularly sensitive to what can be seen as British paternalism (at best) or racism (at worst): 150 years of profiting from the slave trade before abolishing it and 80 years of colonial rule cannot be airbrushed from history. The British Empire may have seemed benign and glorious from above, but it didn’t always look so great from below. In that sense the ‘GREAT’ Britain campaign grated in some parts of the world.
So the PM should choose his words carefully. It’s therefore surprising that the PM chose to caricature the aid programme as “a giant cash machine in the sky” (duly quoted with approval by the Telegraph, Express and Mail). This has never been true, and it does Britain’s reputation no favours to describe it as such.
On the contrary, many recipients felt British aid was heavily loaded with conditionalities on cost effectiveness and human rights. But they were willing to accept this because the aid clearly met their own national priorities of reducing poverty, improving services and stimulating growth. Clare Short and her successors were firmly committed to the principle of reducing poverty and doing so in close collaboration with African governments and communities. Where we couldn’t work with the governments, we worked with the people. But everyone knew that the whole purpose was to help the poor people of the world.
This is why British aid was trusted and DFID respected. Both greatly enhanced Britain’s reputation and – yes – influence in Africa and around the world.
But the PM went further. He explicitly compared the large amounts of aid provided to Zambia and Tanzania with the small amounts given to Ukraine and the Western Balkans which were ‘susceptible to Russian meddling’, implying that the former deserved less and the latter deserved more – not to reduce poverty, but to counter another country’s influence. He stated that 1997 was ‘a more benign world’, implying again that this country could no longer afford altruism. Values, it feels, will be subordinated to interests. One would be forgiven for thinking that the PM wanted to weaponize the British aid programme. Mrs Thatcher tried that. It did not end well, as the Pergau Dam saga demonstrated.
Either way, it has left a strong impression in Africa that the continent is being de-prioritised by this Government. “A big, big blow to Africa” as one senior African minister wrote to me this morning. That feeling will be widely shared.
For all the PM’s warm words at the Africa Investment Summit only a few months ago, actions speak louder than words. And the full absorption of DFID into the FCO is a loud statement to the world at large that the UK will be pursuing a ‘Britain First’ foreign policy from now on.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society
 One might almost suspect that the announcement was made at short notice, when everyone was focused on the Government’s U-turn on school meal vouchers, and the review had been given its predetermined conclusions. Not for the first, and not for the last time – watch out for the new review into racism…
 The devolved administrations may even feel it is more an ‘England First’ foreign policy as, despite their taxpayers money contributing to it, they are not consulted on such matters.