Three former prime ministers have spoken out against the planned merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, with former occupants of No.10 labelling the move a “mistake”, “wrong and regressive” and leading to the loss of “one of UK’s great assets”.
Yesterday the prime minister, Boris Johnson, said a newly-formed Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office would "unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort".
But the FDA union said the announcement had created “huge uncertainty and unease for DfID staff”. FDA national officer Allan Sampson said officials who had worked “tirelessly” to combat Covid-19 and protect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people would “understandably be concerned for their future and disappointed to hear about this through leaks to the media”.
And the move has been met with widespread condemnation from aid organisations and former international development ministers, as well as three of Johnson’s predecessors.
Following the announcement in the House of Commons yesterday afternoon, Cameron said losing DfID would mean “less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas”.
Johnson said the merger, which will give the foreign secretary control of the aid budget, was necessary because there was too little coordination between aid spending and foreign policy and an “inherent risk of our left and right hands working independently”.
He said combining the new department would retain the government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of UK GDP on overseas development assistance, but that it would do so in a way that would “maximise British influence”.
Cameron said Johnson was right to maintain the spending commitment that “saves lives, promotes a safer world and builds British influence”, adding that more “could and should be done to coordinate aid and foreign policy”.
“But the decision to merge the departments is a mistake,” he said.
Tony Blair, the Labour former prime minister who span DfID out of the Foreign Office in 1997, said he was “utterly dismayed” by the plans, which he called “wrong and regressive”.
“We created DfID in 1997 to play a strong, important role in projecting British soft power. It has done so to general global acclaim… The strategic aims of alignment with diplomacy and focus on new areas of strategic interest to Britain could be accomplished without its abolition,” he said in a statement.
His successor Gordon Brown accused Johnson of abolishing "one of the UK’s great international assets.”
Writing for CSW’s sister publication The House, Andrew Mitchell, who was international development secretary from 2010 to 2012, called the merger a “retrograde step which we will come to regret”.
“It is not usually a good sign when governments decide to tinker with the Whitehall architecture – especially in the middle of the worst crisis for a generation,” he said.
The Conservative MP said DfID would be “poached” by international organisations – echoing a warning to CSW in April, when he said a merger would mean “all the brilliant people who have given DfID its reputation around the world as the prime example of global Britain, in terms of British influence and effectiveness, will leave”.
The former MP Rory Stewart, who was international development minister from May to July 2019, said: “It will lead to a lot of disruption, a lot of uncertainty at a time when the Foreign Office has an enormous amount to be focused on.”
And Douglas Alexander, a former Labour MP who international development secretary from 2007 to10, tweeted: “Abolishing DfID would be an act of national self-harm that would hurt both the UK’s global standing and our efforts to assist the world’s poorest people amidst a global pandemic.”
'No consultation' with aid organisations
Facing questions from MPs about his plans yesterday, Johnson said there had been “massive consultation” about the merger.
But aid organisations, many of which have condemned the move, denied they had been consulted.
Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond, the UK network for aid NGOs, said it was happening “with no consultation and against the advice of aid scrutiny bodies, as well as our development sector”.
Save the Children UK chief exec Kevin Watkins said the move signalled a “shift in priorities”, rather than a necessary solution to a lack of Whitehall coordination.
“A prime minister can require that government departments talk to each other. A prime minister can set up coordinating mechanisms to ensure that that happens,” he said.
“Merging DfID, the world’s leading aid agency, into the Foreign Office in the midst of a pandemic that threatens to reverse hard-won gains in child survival, nutrition and poverty is reckless, irresponsible and a dereliction of UK leadership.”
And Patrick Watt, director of policy, public affairs and campaigns at Christian Aid, said it was an “an act of political vandalism” that “threatens a double whammy to people in poverty, and to our standing in the world”.