The UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office One Year In

A year ago, the UK Government announced the integration of the Department for International Development (DFID) into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which became the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). Soon after the merger, the UK’s development budget was cut by £4.5 billion and reduced from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent of gross national income (GNI). The cuts—which disproportionately hit bilateral spending and some UN agencies—have seen steep reductions in support for some of the world’s poorest countries.

When the merger was first announced, we published an op-ed raising a variety of concerns, above all, that such institutional interconnectedness ran the risk of eroding DFID’s core strengths, which were the source of its reputation as a global development leader and ultimately a key driver of UK “soft power.” Our concerns focused on what was once DFID’s strong articulation of purpose and focus on poverty reduction, its commitment to development effectiveness, and its expertise and development and humanitarian professional cadres.

In this blog, we look back at the FCDO’s first year and examine the extent to which DFID’s core strengths have been eroded because of the merger. One year in, our fears have materialized. The FCDO has veered away from a poverty focus, its commitment to development effectiveness has waned, and its expertise has been heavily diluted. The merger, combined with the substantive aid cuts, has started to threaten  the UK’s once heralded status of a development superpower.  

Articulation of purpose

The risk of this merger was always the potential to subordinate development objectives to other foreign policy interests. In the UK, these risks were present from the day the merger was announced, when Boris Johnson seemingly questioned the rationale for providing equal support to Zambia and the Ukraine, given the security importance of the latter. The implications of the speech were clear; using development resources for the singular purpose of advancing development outcomes was no longer the modus operandi favoured by the government.

To be fair, the purpose of UK international development policy was already shifting prior to the merger, not least with the 2015 UK Aid Strategy which had as its strapline “tackling global challenges in the national interest.” The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy reaffirmed the logic, clearly positioning development as a tool for advancing foreign policy aims and articulating a closer alignment with diplomacy and defence. The proof of the pudding is in the emphasis in the review on the Indo-Pacific, a region the UK has relatively little development experience or presence in (except for a few key partner countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan), yet a region of high geopolitical and economic value to the UK. In light of shifting priorities, including for development, it seems unlikely that the UK can retain the explicit poverty-focused allocation criteria for which DFID was known.

Scrutiny and effectiveness

The UK’s reputation as a leader in global development stemmed—at least in part—from both the institutional autonomy of DFID and the UK’s system for evaluation and scrutiny. DFID had long been a standout on effectiveness, with evidence showing its global leadership on issues such as transparency, and domestic leadership in relation to other UK government departments, including the former FCO. It was often argued that the institutional autonomy of an independent DFID had allowed the department to focus on effectiveness as a driver of development policy and practice, and contributed to its global standing. While it is too early to empirically assess how the merger has impacted the effectiveness of UK official development assistance (ODA), the swiftness of recent cuts and deepening alignment between development and diplomacy in the FCDO raises concerns about the quality of future UK ODA.

More concretely, there are early signs that the FCDO is weaker on the practice of transparency than former DFID. The UK’s system for scrutinizing ODA came under pressure immediately following the merger; the day the merger was announced, the chair of the International Development Committee (IDC), which is the parliamentary body responsible for scrutinizing UK ODA activities, was informed that the committee would be closed. While strong push-back, including from the Foreign Affairs Committee, meant that the IDC survived, there is evidence that the new department is already less open and willing to be scrutinized. A recent assessment conducted by the Independent Commission of Aid Impact (ICAI), for instance, noted that the FCDO had been less transparent and open in its engagement with ICAI in comparison to prior years. Similarly, the IDC chair argued that the committee had noticed a pattern of receiving “dodgy information” from the FCDO, limiting its ability to fully scrutinize UK ODA.

Expertise and the professional development and humanitarian cadre

Recent mergers of development agencies in other countries have shown that losing development expertise poses a risk to not only the long-term quality of development engagement, but also to the global networks and relationships that support bilateral diplomacy. In the Australian cases, up to 2000 years of development expertise was lost following the merger, particularly from senior staff in partner countries. The impact of this loss permeated across program quality, reputation, and the “ability to lead and influence others.”

One year on from the formation of the FCDO, there are already signs of expertise loss and that former-DFID’s professional development cadre is increasingly under pressure. As part of the process of merging, senior civil servants from the former FCO and DFID were reorganized to create the new FCDO management structure. Of the initial “core” members of the Management Board announced last year, just two of the seven initial appointments were former DFID officials. Merging also necessitated a consolidation of regulations across agencies, which had implications for non-UK staff from former DFID. Non-UK staff have been allowed to retain their current positions, but the designation of the FCDO as a “reserved” department leaves non-UK staff in a precarious position. Furthermore, doubt continues to be cast on whether the FCDO will retain DFID’s long standing advisory cadre.

More recently, the government’s decision to maintain lower ODA spending at 0.5 percent of GNI until “fiscal circumstances” change (which is not expected until at least 2025/26) was quickly followed by news that the FCDO plans to cut its staffing costs by 20 percent. While most of the cuts are expected to come from those working on discontinued development projects, as well as short-term contracts or secondments which may be ending, it is perhaps inevitable that the department will face tough choices over which capacities are retained.

The merger has already undermined the UK’s ambition of being a “force for good”

One year on from the creation of the FCDO, it is clear that development has not been given the “new prominence” of place within UK international policy that was stated when the merger was first announced. Choices made in the last year have undermined the legacy of DFID, by amplifying strategic interests in development policy, reducing transparency over ODA decision-making, and dismantling the professional development cadre that made the UK a global leader in the sector. We, and many others, warned of such risks when the merger was first announced.

Going forward, if the FCDO is to maintain the UK’s reputation as a development and humanitarian leader—especially as it works to position itself as a “force for good”—then it must reinforce the strengths it acquired from DFID. The forthcoming International Development Strategy is an opportunity for the government to reaffirm its commitment to effectiveness and to clearly focus on poverty reduction and supporting vulnerable populations as the main objective of its development cooperation. Moreover, the FCDO must prevent further loss of former-DFID’s professional development cadre and expert staff, whose innovative policy analysis and intellectual leadership have significantly influenced the positions adopted by the international development community over the past two decades. Without the expertise and global networks that come from professional development staff, the UK risks giving up a critical soft power asset—its reputation as a leader in global development.

The authors would like to thank Ranil Dissanayake and Ian Mitchell for their comments. Any errors belong to the authors.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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