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June 24, 2020
WICID Executive response to the announcement merging DfID with the FCO
Shirin M Rai, Briony Jones, Oyinlola Oyebode, Maeve Moynihan
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that his government will merge the Foreign Office (FCO) with the Department for International Development (DfID) should not come as a surprise. Johnson has previously said overseas aid needs to be spent “more in line with Britain’s political, commercial and diplomatic interests” and told the Financial Times in 2019 that Britain cannot keep operating as if it were a “Scandinavian NGO”. Although unsurprising, this merger signifies yet another regressive step in Britain’s attitude to international relations. It represents the intent of current political leaders’ to restructure the British civil service. In January, former international trade secretary Liam Fox, who still influences policy making, said of the Conservative’s huge majority in parliament: “the Conservative victory has created a political moment which is as important as Mrs Thatcher’s victory in 1979”. Conservatives are seizing that moment.
Tony Blair’s government set up DfID in 1997 after a long list of scandals about British foreign aid being used to leverage lucrative trade deals. For example, the UK government spent £243m on a controversial dam in Malaysia in exchange for an arms agreement in the Pergau Dam case. A cross-party committee on international development this year noted DfID’s good reputation internationally and said, “it is clear that it stands head and shoulders above other overseas development aid spending departments”. However, the danger in this merger lies in the potential for old aspects of corruption, like the Pergdau Dam case, to return. The aid budget for the most vulnerable communities, if such areas are not attractive to trade, may be reduced and have a highly detrimental impact on low- and middle-income countries that currently receive support.
The same cross-party committee noted above found that more than a quarter of the UK’s £15bn (0.7% of GDP) annual aid budget was administered through departments outside DfID, with accountability becoming increasingly “eroded”. Between 2014 and 2019 spending outside DfID rose from £1.6bn to £4.1bn. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact warned this meant a greater focus on middle-income countries; countries which are of interest to the UK from a security, climate or economic perspective, reinforcing the neoliberal agenda and the potential threat for old aspects of corruption to return.
Despite warnings, many have expected this merger to go ahead. Civil servants have expressed concern about the merger being forced through and Labour have accused the government of making changes “by the back door”. Nevertheless, despite a brief delay due to COVID-19, the merger is now going ahead as Conservative leaders look to Britain’s future relationships across the globe.
When he announced the plan in the House of Commons, Johnson said the departments were “designed to achieve the same goal”, which suggests he sees the role of DfID as primarily diplomatic, lubricating the wheels for greater commercial and political cooperation between Britain and its partners. He also said it was no use to have a British diplomat seeing the leader of a country and “urging him not to cut the head off his opponent” if the next day another representative of the British government arrived “with a cheque for £250m”. Not only is Johnson acknowledging Britain’s relationship with governments and dictators involved in oppression and human rights abuses, but he is also rehashing colonial-era tropes about uncivilised countries that the British try to civilize. Either way, the future doesn’t look bright for how British international development money is spent abroad. As countries around the world reckon with their colonial past and oppressive societal structures after the murder of George Floyd, Johnson’s decision to merge DfID with the FCO only reinforces such problematic antiquated tendencies and pushes the UK further into the past, rather than the future.