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17 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:11pm

In appointing Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Boris Johnson has completed Theresa May’s revolution

May set in train a process that looks certain to end in a merger between the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development – but the government’s case for the benefits is confused.  

By Stephen Bush

Revolution complete? Last week’s reshuffle saw the end of a process that has been in train since Theresa May’s administration – the complete merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) with the Department for International Development (Dfid) at junior ministerial level.

It’s wholly unsurprising for a number of reasons, politically speaking: Boris Johnson has long been of the view that the two departments should be merged, while May was at the least open to the idea. The unalloyed good news from a machinery of government perspective is that this is a sensible way to go about merging departments, by avoiding as far as possible the disruption of a “big bang” merger. May started putting the change in train by having the junior ministers for Africa sit across both departments, while Johnson and May’s first two Dfid secretaries, Priti Patel and Penny Mordaunt, held meetings of the two ministerial teams which were essentially a version of the system now formalised by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

At a civil service level, Matthew Rycroft, the permanent secretary at Dfid, is an FCO alumnus, and many in his department think that his appointment was in part about laying the groundwork for a full merger. So, as far as you can do these things without disruption, the moment has been prepared for.

But is it a good idea? Advocates of an FCO-Dfid merger tend to make two arguments for it: that it will mean that British development spending does more to boost the United Kingdom’s overall foreign policy priorities, and that it will help to ensure that the British taxpayer gets “value for money” for the UK’s foreign aid commitment. (The British government is one of seven developed countries to have hit the 0.7 per cent target, and because it is the largest economy to do so, it spends more on aid than any government other than the United States.)  

The trouble is that the two priorities point in different directions. There’s the structural problem that the the FCO is generally rated at or near the bottom as far as departmental transparency is concerned – giving it more oversight over the UK’s large aid budget is unlikely to increase the level of oversight that you and I have over what that budget does. But there’s also the political problem that, whenever a country’s foreign ministry and its aid budget come under the same roof, the government’s political priorities tend to dominate.

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There are upsides to that approach – as I noted last week, one of the pillars of Margaret Thatcher’s strategy for tackling climate change was the international development budget. It’s our core strategic national interest that the world avoid the upheavals, refugee crises and resource wars that will dominate the 21st century if the world’s developing nations aren’t able to prepare for a changing climate and to develop economically in a way that doesn’t deepen the climate crisis.  If the British government chooses to direct its aid funding to prioritise conservation and tackling the climate crisis, that’s in my view a good thing – but it does have downsides for Dfid’s role as a poverty-fighting body.

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Prioritising the national interests of the country spending the aid money means you end up with more money for incumbent regimes, regardless of their democratic bona fides, and less money for things that might be awkward for diplomats to defend – like initiatives to educate women and girls, or to increase contraception, or to deliver schools and hospitals regardless of local political affiliation.

And what both upsides and downsides have in common is that they don’t, by definition, put value for money front and centre. Let’s take the increasing dominance of Chinese development loans in Africa. It’s in the strategic and political interests of the British government to seek to combat that. Does that mean that, as far as possible, British development assistance should seek to outbid China? The British government spends more on international development than the Chinese do, but where China’s aid spending is able to outmatch the UK, it is because there are fewer caveats on human rights and less care and attention to whether or not the money will be paid back. (Indeed, some foreign policy analysts believe that the express purpose of some of China’s deals with less developed nations is that they should be unable to service them, increasing China’s dominance and control over the nations it lends to.)

There’s no right answer here – you can make a strong case for either of these policy choices. But it speaks to a wider flaw with the government’s Whitehall reorganisations: in that the government often seems to regard them as a way to avoid a basic strategic choice. But while Whitehall reorganisations can help you deliver your strategy, the need to make a choice doesn’t go away: and in the choice between “making British aid serve the wider political interests of the British government” and “securing value for money on British aid spending”, there is, inevitably, a degree of conflict: regardless of if those questions are debated between two departments or within one.