UK aid impoverished by FCO-DfID merger, report warns

Officials have been faced with ‘strategic drift’ in recent years, aid watchdog says
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By Jonathan Owen

18 Sep 2023

The controversial merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has resulted in “disruption and losses” to the UK's aid programme, the Independent Commission for Aid Compact has warned.

In a review of UK aid since 2019, it outlined how the negative impact of the merger has been accompanied by “frequent changes in ministers and government priorities” and reductions in  the aid budget.

The report, UK aid under pressure, describes how “practical challenges raised by the merger inevitably had an impact on the aid programme, leaving the department inward-focused and distracted for much of the period.”

It cites how the “loss of development expertise during the transition” was a major concern for people “within and outside the department.” There has been an “erosion of technical capacity and institutional memory,” since the merger. And the loss of DfID expertise has “reduced FCDO’s ability to pursue its objective of promoting democracy around the world.”

The merger, which took place in 2020, has been described as a “mistake” by former prime minister David Cameron. And a year after it took place, a survey by the FDA union revealed that just 7.5% of respondents considered the merger a success. 

The new ICAI report states that one of DfID’s greatest strengths, the recruitment of external experts from around the world, “has been impaired by the merger.” There are “unresolved questions about the role of specialist expertise within FCDO,” with “a perception among specialists that it is not valued as much as in the past.”

The report adds that “one of the most negative impacts of the merger has been on country-based staff.” It says: “in our interviews and focus groups, many country-based staff reported feeling disempowered and demoralised. They told us that they faced restrictions on their access to information, their ability to represent the department externally and their career prospects.”

Another issue is the risk that aid is being used in a “short-term or transactional way, to facilitate diplomatic access, especially in settings where the UK has strong national interests at stake.”
The “strong consensus” among those that the ICAI spoke to and “external commentary” it reviewed “was that the merger represented a significant setback in the UK’s ability to provide high-quality development assistance.” And any “gains in terms of more joined-up external engagement remain uncertain.”

In addition, “most stakeholders are of the view that the FCO culture has emerged as dominant within the merged department.” This is due to a decline in transparency and external consultation, and less focus on evidence and learning, along with “more hierarchical decision-making and a reduced culture of internal challenge.”

The past four years has “been a period of strategic drift” and “in the absence of a clear strategic direction, significant shifts in priorities have come about as a result of financial pressures from a sharply reduced aid budget.”

Despite the pressures the aid programme has been under, it has “continued to make an important contribution to international development and global crisis response.” However, changes are needed to “restore the quality and reputation of UK aid and ensure it remains focused where it is most needed.” The report calls for a return to longer term budgets, for the FCDO to renew its commitment to ending extreme poverty and placing vulnerable people at the heart of its work, and “restoring transparency and opportunities for internal and external challenge to the management of UK aid.”

There also needs to be “effective use of development expertise” and a commitment to “evidence-based decision-making that focuses on development outcomes.”  

Responding to the report,  released last week, Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee,  said: “This independent review underlines what has become sadly apparent over the last 4 years: the FCO DFID merger was a bad move, at a bad time, that has brought few detectable gains.” She added: “Coming alongside ongoing cuts to the UK aid budget, it has broadly undermined the UK’s international standing and the impact of UK aid spending.”

A FCDO spokesperson said: “The UK is a leader in international development spending nearly £12.8bn on aid in 2022, and as ICAI has recognised in this report our aid programmes continue to make a positive difference for people around the world.”

They added: “As one department, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has brought together the best of what we do in development and foreign policy to promote the UK overseas and deal with global challenges.”

The spokesperson said: “We are due to nearly double the aid budget for lower income countries next year, including in Africa where aid will rise from £646m to £1.364bn, helping to reduce poverty, alleviate the devastating impacts of climate change and protect the world’s most vulnerable people.”

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