What next for UK Aid? by Tariq Siraj

The future of DFID has been a talking point ever since the idea of bringing it under the umbrella of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office was mooted in 2018 and 2019. Since Boris Johnson’s resounding election victory in December it then seemed a matter of ‘if’ rather than ‘when’. However if the most recent reports are to be believed it seems that DFID will remain as a stand-alone department in its own right, but perhaps lose a dedicated secretary of state – currently Alok Sharma – and instead be handed to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

The long-term future of DFID has actually been up in the air since mid-2016; the Brexit result – as it did with so much else – created a ton of uncertainty. Since then, International Development advisories have been trying to shake off an over-reliance on DFID projects and instead expanding their scope more and more to the myriad of other national, regional and global aid funding institutions and banks. As the growing assumption is of a diminishing level of importance for DFID, that will probably prove to be a sound approach.

But what will DFID’s role actually be? If it loses a dedicated head and cheerleader then the feeling is that it’s £14 billion budget will simply be enveloped into the FCO’s wider portfolio and DFID’s impact as a globally-admired aid entity will be no more. Keeping it’s status as a stand-alone department no more than an empty gesture to appease those championing it.   However, recent history tells us that there are a few ways such a policy can end up…

In 2013 both Australia and Canada merged aid and foreign policy departments with offering results. The fairly reckless nature of Australian government’s move – which took everyone by surprise – resulted in a clash of cultures which still exists today and a loss of strategic vision around the use of aid, transparency and evaluation capacity. In Canada the move was planned far more in advance and has had positive results regarding efficiencies and less of a shock to the system culturally – but the over-arching view seems to be a negative one and that aid has become to politicised and influenced by foreign policy strategies.

Norway then followed suit in 2014 – again to fundamentally keep closer control over aid operations in the face of an ever growing budget and level of autonomy.  Norway implemented a hybrid model which has left NORAD semi-autonomous and many feel leaves the programme in limbo.

So what should the UK do? Most experts believe the motivation itself is key in driving a successful transition and whether there is genuine will to keep development interests separate from national self-interests. The UK’s aid budget is legally ringfenced at 0.7% of GDPR and one would hope the long-in-the-making policy will create a smoother cultural transition – but fundamentally a merger itself will surely signal a decline in DFID’s standing around the world as a model development agency. British leadership and influence more generally in the developing world has been declining and maybe DFID – as a benchmark to others of how to do things properly – is exactly what’s needed as we enter the slightly unknown world beyond Brexit.

by Tariq Siraj

DFID


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