What are the true motivations behind the creation of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and whose interest will it serve – the UK Government or the world’s poor? These were questions asked at a digital event hosted by Big Tent Digital last night (4 August).
The event was attended by Harriett Baldwin MP, a Conservative Party backbencher and Former Minister of State at the Department for International Development (DFID), who is positive about the change. Referring back to her time at the soon-to-be-dismantled DFID, she said that working closely with her colleagues at the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) at the time made a lot of sense: “I must say from my point of view I felt that I could not have done the job any other way.”
“I cannot object to the teams working more closely together.”
Reflecting broader concerns about the merger, Baldwin has however asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab MP, who will lead the department, to assure more than half of the budget of the new department is spent on the poorest and most conflict-affected countries in the world, and that a separate parliamentary committee is set up to scrutinise how foreign aid is spent.
Throughout the session international speakers shared their views on combining foreign policy with international development policy, warning of negative effects they had seen first-hand following similar institutional mergers elsewhere.
Nadine Haddad, Conflict and Fragility Lead at World Vision Australia, claimed that a similar merger in the country has led to it losing significant diplomatic and soft power in various regions, and that the policy focus has shifted:
“The alignment with trade has made it more focused on infrastructure than the social wellbeing of poor people. This is a trend that the UK seems to be following.”
“We’ve also seen a preference to bring in private sector in the aid space. These companies were not subjected to accountability measures public bodies were.”
“Departmental efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean aid efficiency.”
She praised the UK’s track record when it comes to aid policy, and expressed worry about how the new department will be received:
“Aid is part of the UK DNA, it is the birthplace of world-leading institutions. What message are we sending to the public about aid efficiency?”
John McKay, Canadian MP and chair of the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety & National Defence, expressed strong scepticism about the creation of the new department: “My message is quite simple: Don’t do it.”
“Aid is for poor people,” he continued “you need to ask them what they want and need, and it has to be consistent with international human rights standards.”
“The interest of a nation is not necessarily the interest of poor people.”
McKay means that the merge highlights the de-prioritisation of poor people’s needs, and urged politicians to be more honest about their intentions.
“If Britain is at a point where it is saying it has to merge the departments for efficiency, just say so. Don’t pretend that it’s about aid, in the sense that it’s for those who need the money.”
When asked about his view of Canadian international development policy, McKay said: “It was not very transparent to begin with and only got worse.”
“Canada’s experience is hypocritical and our aid is unfocused. If it is done to benefit Canada’s foreign and trade policy, just say that.”
Amy Johnson, Government Relations Manager for World Vision UK, praised the UK’s work with aid and was more optimistic about the potential for the new department to perform well: “We should be immensely proud of our development work. It’s excellent. In this merger the best of DFID and the best development work needs to be brought into the FCO.”
Johnson argued that ensuring the ‘super-department’ will let international aid work guide its foreign policy, and not vice versa, will be crucial to how it is received by the public.
“The UK public want UK aid to be used to alleviate poverty rather than serve the national interest. British people are proud of UK aid and what it does and we should be wary to redirect it away from that. It might undermine our work and undermine its purpose.”
“We recommend the Government appoints a chief secretary for international development. This will ensure the voices of the world’s poorest can be heard at the highest level.”
“We don’t want to see an erosion of transparency and accountability.”