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Tue, 7 July 2020

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By Sarah Champion MP and Pauline Latham MP
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The UK can lead the world in the fight to end poverty. But does this government still care?

The UK can lead the world in the fight to end poverty. But does this government still care?

Boris Johnson has announced plans to merge the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development | Credit: PA Images

4 min read

To throw away decades of experience of supporting the world's most vulnerable people, for a purely political decision, is unfathomable.

For over twenty years, the Department for International Development (DFID) has been supporting the poorest all around the world. It has led on programmes providing quality education, it has boosted healthcare facilities, it has supported people in gaining access to justice and security. UK aid underlines our reputation for working towards the global common good, promoting UK values and enhancing our standing on the world stage.

At the core of all its work is one thing: to help end extreme poverty.

All of these humanitarian roles, and the very premise of why we give development assistance, are now in jeopardy that the department is being folded into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

The Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday could not come at a worse time. As developed nations seem to be overcoming coronavirus, the pandemic is just now taking hold in the Global South. It is adding further distress on communities which have the existing challenges of instability, famine and disease. These countries look to us for assistance when they need it most.

I hope this move – and the rushed fashion that it seems to have been made – does not signal to the world’s poorest that we are turning our backs on them.

I hope it also doesn’t look as though we are turning our backs on the multilateral organisations that the UK has built strong relationships with, which look to us to lead by example. We still have the ability, and the skills to remain world leaders in ending poverty – but does the Government still have the intention?

The argument from the Government to align the departments, while continuing to seek to end poverty, holds little weight. The two departments have very different roles – one is political and one is humanitarian, often these will conflict.

The International Development Committee, which I chair, has recently published its interim review considering the future of DFID. It was explicitly clear that DFID is well-respected, it continues to exceed transparency targets, and is a literal lifeline for many people. This contrasts with other ODA giving departments, like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which have a less than desirable track record of transparency around aid spend and actually prioritise spend to middle-income countries rather than the poorest.

This aside – merging foreign affairs and development departments simply does not work. We have received extensive evidence that mergers of this nature erode international reputations, and are so costly and disruptive that they outweigh any potential benefits. In the cases of Canada and Australia, the mergers have not improved the quality of aid, and we have heard that the reorganisations eroded their soft power. Merging these departments may seem attractive short-term with possible administrative efficiency gains, but in the long run, we will have shot ourselves in the foot on the world stage.

All of the crucial evidence that we have collected over the last few months as part of our inquiry was to be the Committee’s submission to feed into the Government’s Integrated Review. A Review, we were told, that would be subject to full consultation and a considered approach looking at the value of UK foreign policy across Whitehall.

Instead, we have a decision made by the top of Government on what seems to be an uninformed, purely political decision, for reasons unfathomable to many of us. The beauty of DFID is that it escapes so much of the messy politics, and just focusses on helping people who need it most, so I have huge concern for the 3,600 DFID staff who are trying to address the global pandemic whilst having this surprise ten-week merger landing on them; they deserve better than this.

We should all be proud of the incredible work that DFID has done, and I hope in the new ‘super department’ to coin a phrase by the Prime Minister, that at least some of this work can continue. To throw away decades of experience of supporting the most vulnerable, and the international standing it has given to the UK, would be madness. 

Sarah Champion MP is the Chair of the International Development Committee

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Foreign affairs