ON June 16, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the merger of the Department For International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in parliament. The suddenness of the decision in the midst of the global pandemic took everyone by surprise, and criticisms of the merger came thick and fast from across the political spectrum, including former prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, as well as the aid sector, which had been left out of the loop.
Most criticisms revolved around the fact that dissolution of Britain’s widely known DFID would damage countries’ hard-won standing abroad and derail its independent work on poverty alleviation, gender empowerment, health and social protections in the world’s poorest regions. DFID’s role in shaping debates on development was crucial in terms of providing a necessary balance to the neoliberal tilt of the World Bank.
The merger, however, was long in coming. Johnson had dropped strong hints of DFID’s reabsorption into the FCO since he was foreign secretary. Andrew Mitchell, former secretary of state for international department from 2010-2012, had previously foiled the FCO’s inroads into DFID’s domain. However, with the recent appointment of Anne-Marie Trevelyan, an ardent Brexiteer, in the post, the dice was fully loaded against DFID. Her attachment to the cause of international development was suspect as evidenced in her oft-stated ‘charity begins at home’ mantra, and her approach dovetails with Johnson’s long-held view of DFID as ‘a cashpoint in the sky’.
DFID was one of the crowning achievements of the Labour Party, which pledged when in the opposition in the early 1990s to separate British aid from perceived associations with foreign, trade or defence policy, in response to the Pergau Dam arms-for-aid scandal. Until then, the FCO had exercised considerable sway over aid distribution in pursuit of its policy objectives. In 1997, Blair’s government established DFID as an independent department, with the formidable Clare Short as first sectary of state for international development. Under her, DFID grew and flourished in influence, reach and intellectual rigour; she shifted the focus to no-strings-attached aid. This went hand in hand with Labour’s ethical foreign policy under the late foreign secretary Robin Cook. In time, DFID become a world leader in international development thought and policy. It directed aid into long-term poverty alleviation, education and health programmes, transforming millions of lives worldwide.
Under May’s government, DFID’s dilution gathered greater steam, with a substantial part of the budget diverted to other departments. A large chunk of aid money is being channelled into the Commonwealth Development Corporation Group, which has controversially invested funds into building a luxury hotel in Nigeria and a shopping mall in Kenya. Well before Johnson’s shock announcement, baby steps towards merger were in the works, with junior DFID officials seconded to the FCO and country heads of its missions abroad placed under the thumb of ambassadors. In a related move, the government has also hinted at dissolving the House of Commons committee on international development, thereby removing any parliamentary scrutiny of the use of taxpayers’ funds in the foreign aid budget.
Pakistan will be particularly hard hit, as DFID has been a major donor for its government and civil society. This has, unjustifiably, made the country a target of anti-aid stories printed in the highly influential British tabloids. In recent years, there have been many negative stories about the alleged misuse of funds linked to the Benazir Income Support Programme as well as Shahbaz Sharif. These politically and ideologically motivated stories have been stoutly rebutted by DFID.
DFID has made a huge difference to poverty alleviation, malnutrition and maternal and child health, gender empowerment and education in Pakistan. With control over funds passing into the FCO’s hands, development aid to Pakistan may see a considerable drop. This development-harming aid squeeze, in the time of Covid-19 and IMF-directed austerity, will adversely affect the country’s sustainable development trajectory.
With the FCO taking over DFID, future aid will increasingly become tied and referenced to British interests. DFID’s singular contribution consisted in ditching the concept of tied aid and introducing the idea of disinterested aid for poverty alleviation and broader development goals. Where the Labour-inaugurated DFID exemplified Britain’s outward and internationalist reach and ambitions, the Conservative-led dissolution of DFID shows Britain at its most insular, inward-looking worst. This has adverse implications for Britain, its image abroad as well as the poorest of the poor worldwide.
The writer is a public health consultant.