Setting the Compass for Eliminating World Poverty: The Department for International Development 1997-2003

This paper is the second in a series examining how the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) was born, functioned internationally and domestically, and merged in 2020 with the diplomatic service to form the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It covers the first six years of DFID’s existence, the period for which Clare Short was the secretary of state. Other papers in the series are available here.

You can read the first paper in the series, on DFID’s creation, here. We plan to release these and future papers in the series as a book next year.


Created in 1997, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) had by 2003 become one of the world’s most influential organisations in international development. This paper explains how that was brought about through the combination of effective political leadership, wider government backing, the setting and retention of clear objectives behind which growing resources were rigorously deployed, the employment of large numbers of capable and motivated staff, and the effective use of analysis and evidence in advocacy and partnerships with others. This period was one in which the conditions were favourable for global development, and while not all of DFID’s efforts to promote international development were successful, much progress was made. DFID’s overall contribution to improving the living conditions and life experiences of people in many of the world’s poorest countries in these years cannot be quantified, but it is likely to have been significant.

“This was the unipolar moment when the West was feeling confident and generous after the collapse of the Soviet Union and there was a peace dividend to be deployed. Development provided the new global project and the technicians of development asserted that they had the technology to deliver results. That attracted the support of the leaders of government. Short had the genius to understand the moment and seize the initiative in ways that established development agencies could not.”

—Masood Ahmed, president, Center for Global Development

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Image credit for social media/web: DFID/Rich Taylor