In Depth

Reaction: Boris Johnson to form government ‘super-department’ through merger

Three former PMs including David Cameron criticise plan to fold DfID into Foreign Office

Boris Johnson is being accused of jeopardising the UK’s standing in the world after announcing that the government department responsible for overseas aid is to be merged into the Foreign Office.

Revealing the plan in the Commons on Tuesday, the prime minister said that abolishing the separate Department for International Development (DfID) was a “long overdue reform” that would ensure “maximum value” for taxpayers.

But Keir Starmer said the move was “pure distraction” from the UK’s soaring coronavirus death rates, and would weaken UK influence. The Labour leader pledged to re-establish the department if elected PM, reports the BBC.

The merger decision has also been criticised by former UK leaders David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Cameron tweeted that “the end of @DFID_UK will mean less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas”.

“Quite the achievement to get three former PMs out,” wrote the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg. “Blair, Brown and Johnson’s old rival, David Cameron, all criticising his decision to fold DFID into FCO.”

The amalgamation of the two departments has “sparked deep concerns, both ideological and practical”, in a range of quarters, says New Statesman political correspondent Ailbhe Rea.

“There are questions as to whether the merger will achieve the government’s aims, whether those aims are positive for the UK, and, perhaps above all, whether this is the right moment for a reorganisation of Whitehall.”

Merging DfID into the FCO during the coronavirus pandemic also “threatens to reverse hard-won gains in child survival, nutrition and poverty”, Save the Children UK chief executive Kevin Watkins told The Guardian. The move “is reckless, irresponsible and a dereliction of UK leadership”, he added.

Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow has echoed such worries, tweeting that the two departments “are profoundly different and necessary entities, unfit for merger”.

Meanwhile, former FCO and DfID minister Rory Stewart warns in article for Prospect magazine that the merger “will distract diplomats, befuddle development officers and provide no substitute for hard and overdue thinking about Britain’s place in the world”.

In April, International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan told the cross-party International Development Committee that “having a separate DFID secretary of state brings to our global leadership and respect”. 

“What we can deliver in trying to achieve the reductions in global poverty is well served by having both a foreign secretary and a DfID secretary,” she added.

Concerns have also been raised about the conflicting priorities of DfID and the FCO when it comes to Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) funding.

“Independent reviews have repeatedly found DFID to be the most transparent and effective government department for spending ODA,” says aid organisations umbrella body Bond.

The FCO, on the other hand, has “been criticised for spending UK aid on projects that advance security and diplomatic interests, rather than reduce poverty”.

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Despite the growing chorus of voices condemning the move, Johnson’s staunchest allies have backed the merger. 

Proponents of the plan say that while “DFID has garnered a strong reputation for transparency, impact, and value for money in aid spending”, foreign aid “has become unpopular with the media and some elements of the Conservative Party”, reports international development news site Devex

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted that “combining the assets of DFID and FCO under one roof will be an even stronger force for good in the world”.

The Telegraph is also backing the move, arguing in an editorial that the abolition of DfID “is a long-overdue Whitehall reform… needed now more than ever”. 

“As the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, foreign policy is inextricably linked with health security, prosperity and development issues. It needs to speak with one strategic voice and now it can,” the newspaper concludes.

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