2 September 2020

First it was the Foreign Office (FO), then it evolved into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and today it becomes – as foreshadowed by Boris Johnson on 16 June – Britain’s ‘super-department for international affairs’, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). Was this a good idea?

Trailed for months ahead and having in some measure been put into practice by stealth, the FCO is said in an official statement to have now formally ‘merged’ with the Department for International Development (DfID – pronounced ‘Diffid’). But let the government’s emollient language foster  no illusions: this is a hostile takeover, as was always feared by the staff of DfID and is confirmed by the senior appointments announced in recent days. The foreign secretary is head of the new department, and its permanent under-secretary and five of the seven members (including the political director) of its management board come from the FCO stable – leaving the former DfID with only two representatives at senior level. Substantially for this reason but also because even the acronym of the new department (FCDO) hardly trips off the tongue, it will almost certainly be referred to in common parlance as the ‘Foreign Office’. Was this takeover a good idea?

The chief argument for including responsibility for development assistance in any foreign ministry is the unsentimental one that this makes it easier to ensure that it only goes to countries where it will foster important national interests; in other words, it makes aid a more effective instrument of economic statecraft. Boris Johnson could not have made clearer why he thought this essential for Britain by saying in the House of Commons that ‘For too long, frankly, UK overseas aid has been treated like a giant cashpoint in the sky, that arrives without any reference to UK interests.’ It is for this reason that the foreign ministries of other rich countries have already embraced development aid, and it was the case in Britain itself until 1997. The practice, however, has drawbacks, some of which are dependent on circumstances – and the observer’s point of view.

Adoption of a super-foreign ministry in Canada some years ago had an unintended consequence because of the larger budget and staff members of the former international development ministry: ‘rather than foreign policy leading development policy, the opposite happened.’ In Britain’s case, the profile of the management board of the new Foreign Office makes this highly unlikely. More probable, because mergers of major departments can take at least two years to bed in, is that the new FCDO is likely to suffer a loss of efficiency at precisely the time that the UK is cut adrift from the EU and when global risks on many fronts are multiplying [UPDATE 20 Feb 2022: this proved only too true]. But these are contingent considerations. There are two arguments against placing development assistance in a foreign ministry that are relevant to all or at least most circumstances.

First, foreign aid work requires special skills, notably in development project management, and a department in which foreign aid lacks budgetary control and is the poor relation is unlikely to be attractive to the most qualified, experienced and highly motivated individuals in this field. And even a ministry of the sort Boris Johnson has in mind will need first-rate people. Perhaps it is sensitivity to this point that has contributed to the decision of his government to appoint Juliet Chua as ‘Director General Finance and Corporate’, one of the two ex-DfID members of the management board of the new Foreign Office.

Second, because a department like the new British FCDO is predicated on rejection of the argument that aid should go to the most deserving, irrespective of any tangible advantages the donor might obtain in return, it surrenders the moral high ground. In the process, it forfeits an intangible advantage of great diplomatic value; namely, a reputation for generosity that translates into influence or, if you will, soft power. Thus Patrick Watt of Christian Aid, reacting to the proposal to submerge DfID in the FCO, said that it was ‘an act of political vandalism,’ adding that it ‘threatens a double whammy to people in poverty, and to our standing in the world.’

Loss of influence via good reputation is the most often cited drawback of getting rid of a separate development ministry, and it is a strong argument as far as it goes. The trouble is that it tends to ignore that fact that the whole point of the super-department exercise is also to gain influence, albeit by another means (the manipulation of foreign aid). As a result, the net effect on influence of the change is a moot point.

All things considered, I favour the retention of a separate department for development assistance, allied to mechanisms such as inter-departmental committees, joint junior ministers and in-country collaboration between ambassadors and aid officials, for ensuring that aid decisions do not ignore serious foreign policy considerations. This sort of thing has already been going on in the UK. But arrangements of this kind are too low-key for a populist leader and showman like Boris Johnson (now falling apart) and the openly civil service-hating and de facto British prime minister, Dominic Cummings.