UK aid: “The wrong time for a bad idea”

Laurie Lee
Girls in Somalia are more likely to go to school thanks to the Girls Education Challenge programme funded by #UKaid

The Prime Minister’s decision to abolish the Department for International Development (DFID) and put the Foreign Office in charge of all UK aid is a disaster for taxpayers and for the world’s poorest people.

According to all the evidence, this will make UK aid less transparent and less effective.

In fact, this is the worst decision on aid since the Pergau Dam scandal. When overseas development aid was last under the FCO, the government agreed to kick back 20% of all the money Malaysia spent on British arms, and call it aid. The government then wasted £540m (current value) of aid on a hydropower dam that generated electricity at twice the going price. Senior civil servants tried to stop this. The Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister at the time overruled them.

Putting aid under the control of the Foreign Office is still a bad idea. And the Prime Minister’s statement did very little to justify it.

The decision was made before rather than after the foreign, defence and development review. It was made without reference to last week’s report from the House of Commons International Development Select Committee which said: “This Committee advocates strongly for the retention of the current standalone Department for international development, with a Cabinet level Minister.”

The only argument put forward by the Prime Minister is that “we tolerate an inherent risk of our left and right hands working independently”. I used to be the Senior Civil Servant with a focus on aid in 10 Downing Street. I know how frustrated the centre of government can get with having to coordinate different departments. But we have them for a reason – because they are good at different things. I also know that DFID officials today work harder than ever to support government foreign policy in everything they do. So the problem which the Prime Minister is trying to solve has never been smaller.

The real reason for this change is that the government wants to take aid away from helping the poorest people – like those in Zambia and Tanzania. The Prime Minister said it. “We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security. We give ten times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the Western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling.”

What the Ukraine and Western Balkans want most from the UK as allies is not aid, but military support and guarantees, diplomatic support, trade. And that is what the FCO should be allowed to focus on doing. Because that is what it is good at. Not aid.

DFID is consistently rated highly for the quality of its aid spending. Much higher than the FCO. Of 65 reports by the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, which reports to Parliament, 80% of DFID spend received amber/green ratings or better, while 80% of FCO spend was amber/red. In 2018, DFID ranked third for transparency out 45 global aid donors in the Aid Transparency Index. The Foreign Office was ranked 40th.

The timing of this decision is shocking. In the middle of a national crisis, the Prime Minister has chosen to spend time, focus and effort on fixing a problem which does not exist. And at a time when FCO and DFID officials should be focused on dealing with COVID-19 globally, and other international issues, like Yemen, Syria, and Brexit, they will now also be distracted and waste money on a pointless merger. The Prime Minister recognised that “Amid the pandemic, the House will ask whether this is the right moment to reorganise Whitehall.” The clear answer is No.

And it’s not too late for the government to think again.

Postpone this decision and focus on COVID-19. Allow for a proper consultation. Wait for the final report of the House of Commons International Development Select Committee on the effectiveness of UK aid. Wait for the final report of the government’s own Integrated Defence, Foreign and Development Policy Review.

And then make the right decision.

Laurie Lee's picture

Laurie Lee is Chief Executive of CARE International UK – Read his blog posts on our Insights policy and practice website