Recognise DfID expertise and influence in FCO merger, Raab urged

Department for International Development gave ‘huge heft to global Britain’, says ex-secretary of state ahead of Wednesday merger

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab must recognise the “extraordinary influence and expertise” of staff at the Department for International Development (DfID) to maintain Britain’s position in the world, according to former development secretary Andrew Mitchell.

Mitchell, who was secretary of state from 2010 to 2012, said the DfID, which merges with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 2 September to become the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), had contributed “huge heft to global Britain” in terms of soft power.

As the new Whitehall department launched, MPs, peers and aid experts urged Raab and the FCDO leadership team to ensure independent scrutiny of the aid budget, clear lines of accountability and the alleviation of poverty at the heart of its spending.

Mitchell, who initially described the merger as a “self-inflicted act of vandalism” when it was announced by Boris Johnson in June, said: “It’s a genuine takeover. In the city, you know there’s no such thing as a merger and that is the case here. But it is a fait accompli. Criticism is shouting at the moon. It’s clear it’s going to happen so we should be constructive about the future.”

He urged the FCDO leadership to reassure DfID staff who are “passionate about development but also are extremely able civil servants”.

Mitchell said: “The important thing first of all is to ensure that there is an understanding and respect for Britain’s international leadership and it’s not seen as a conquest by the Foreign Office. That means recognising within DfID there is extraordinary world-leading expertise that should be nurtured and respected, and the tentacles of that stretch out into British universities and thinktanks and British NGOs, which like everybody else are going through a very tough time at the moment.

“The influence which DfID exerted, through literally every multilateral and international development organisation in the world, is extraordinarily extensive and an important part of British soft power, which contributes huge heft to global Britain. It’s obviously important that all of this is clearly understood by the most senior decision makers in the Foreign Office.”

Plans had long been mooted to combine the two departments, but the manner and timing of the announcement shocked DfID staff and the wider aid industry. Three former prime ministers criticised the decision.

Johnson pledged to maintain DfID’s £15bn budget and the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid.

Over the weekend Raab announced a review of the aid watchdog, the independent commission for aid impact (ICAI), in order to increase “transparency and accountability” of the aid budget,and to ensure a focus on Global Britain. The aid budget will be integrated “with our diplomatic clout” to maximise the impact of our foreign policy”, Raab said, and the review will ensure ICAI will look at the impact of the spend in line with aims of the FCDO.

Aid groups welcomed the retention of ICAI but said they hoped it would be matched by effective parliamentary scrutiny by a cross parliamentary committee.

John Kerr, permanent undersecretary at the FCO from 1997 to 2002 and a former British ambassador to Washington and the EU, said the UK could lose its reputation if it strayed from using the 0.7% of aid to alleviate poverty.

“If the 0.7% starts to fray at the edges, and if it becomes a weapon to flog defence gear or to take back refugees, we will lose our reputation quite fast,” said Lord Kerr. “There needs to be somebody separate from the permanent secretary at the FCO responsible for aid. They need separate budgets, with somebody answerable to the public accounts committee (PAC) on the propriety of expenditure. When I was permanent secretary, I had to go to the PAC.”

Kerr agreed that DfID staff needed reassurance, saying it must have been very worrying for them to have the prime minister compare the aid spend to a “giant cashpoint” in the sky.

“There are things the FCDO could do to improve morale, for instance give the top economic job to someone at DfID. DfID economists are world class,” said Kerr. Appointing some of the big overseas jobs from DfID officials, would also be good for morale, he said.

He said he was concerned the merger will distract from Britain hosting Cop26 in Glasgow and the G7 next year, but added that there were advantages to the FCDO. “Aid programmes may be more efficient in country where you have a high commission or ambassador who is well-briefed on aid,” he said.

Sarah Champion, who heads the cross-party independent development committee, said: “The government needs to be vigilant to make sure there is no whiff of tied aid or it will seriously undermine the credibility of our foreign policy. To maintain our international reputation, we need to be visibly acting with integrity when it comes to our aid programme.”

Champion also urged parliamentary scrutiny of the overseas aid spend.

Sara Pantuliano, the chief executive at the Overseas Development Institute, said the FCDO has come at a good moment, as the Black Lives Matter movement gains prominence and debate continues over the decolonisation of aid.

Last week, the Guardian reported that many black Asian and minority ethnic men working at DfID claim to have experienced prejudice at work.

“Development was so narrowly focused and, often, there is a patronising tone,” she said. “Bringing together development expertise with foreign office expertise could become a holistic exercise, with the right approach and the right political energy.”

Some DfID staff believe their work on poverty reduction could be undermined by diplomatic staff determined to put UK commercial interests first. Many were dismayed at the makeup of the FCDO leadership team, announced last week. Five appointees, including political director Tim Barrow, were from the FCO, only two were DfID officials.

One DfID staffer told the Guardian how they and others were in tears at a meeting last week as Nick Dyer, DfID’s acting permanent secretary, told them he would not be joining the FCDO.

“His value, expertise and evidence-based approach will be missed,” the staffer said. “The leadership team names were a shock. The majority were FCO. We’ve been told that development is at the heart of the FCDO, but it’s difficult to feel like that at the moment.”


Karen McVeigh

The GuardianTramp

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