Over the last few decades, the UK has secured a strong reputation for its role in advancing global development as a major donor of aid and a leader in promoting effective and impactful policy and practice. Global poverty has halved over the course of the Millennium Development Goals and we now live in a world where ending extreme poverty altogether is believed possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic is going to knock us off course − to what extent will depend on the actions governments take today. As economies head into recession, the UK has already announced cuts of £2.9 billion for 2020 alone and the International Monetary Fund June 2020 World Economic Outlook allows us to predict that the global aid budget could fall to US$141 billion in 2021 − a drop of US$12 billion compared to 2019. It is therefore crucial to ensure an approach guaranteeing every penny of aid is spent as effectively as possible and Britain’s legacy in poverty eradication and sustainable development is maintained.
A new vision for the UK’s role in the world, set out by the Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, must ensure the FCDO maintains DFID’s culture of transparency and commitment to poverty eradication. There is also an opportunity to strengthen the coherence, coordination and collaboration that will enhance the impact and effectiveness of Britain’s aid spending. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, unprecedented numbers living in humanitarian crises, and the climate emergency, a truly ‘Global Britain’ must take this opportunity to demonstrate that it can and will deliver shared stability and prosperity that leaves no one behind.
Protecting the UK’s world-leading reputation through transparency and a focus on poverty
The UK has set a high bar for what development agencies can achieve. The UK is a widely trusted and respected development actor across the world. At the heart of the UK’s approach has been a commitment to transparency and a clear, strong mandate on poverty reduction.
Transparency is critical for UK aid spending in two key ways. First, the British people must have confidence in the new department to spend aid well and trust it to deliver both value for money and impact that justifies taxpayers’ money being spent on international objectives. Second, governments of countries receiving aid, other aid donors, implementing partners and aid beneficiaries need to have visibility on what is being spent, where, and by whom. Open, timely and forward-looking information about UK aid spending and commitments is essential to maximise its impact and effectiveness. Aid is one of many resources going into countries − full visibility of what it is for and where it is spent is essential for country governments to make decisions on how they allocate precious domestic resources. Furthermore, the FCDO will be responsible for administering over £13 billion of taxpayers’ resources compared to the FCO’s £2.4 billion. DFID’s culture of transparency must be carried over to the FCDO to ensure scrutiny, effective spending and good resource management are at the heart of the new department. DFID consistently ranked highly for transparency – in 2020 it ranked 9th in the world compared to the FCO which ranked 38th. The new department must be brought up to DFID standards.
The commitment to put evidence at the heart of decision-making by the FCDO is critical and will set the right direction for government ministers to follow independent advice from expert bodies such as the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI). The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the Rt Hon Dominic Raab has already confirmed that ICAI will continue to play its role in scrutinising UK aid spending. Additional parliamentary scrutiny of UK’s aid spending must also be confirmed − to have oversight of all UK aid spending across all government departments, starting with the FCDO.
In terms of maintaining a mandate to focus on poverty, reaching the very poorest has been and continues to be the primary objective of UK aid. Not only is this morally right, it is a vital part of achieving shared global prosperity, stability and a peaceful world for all. We know that investing in health and education both improves lives and enhances human capital to benefit sustained economic growth. Social protection offers a safety net that prevents people from becoming entrenched in chronic poverty and ensures they stand the best chance at having a decent future as well as making a positive contribution to wider society. Empowering women and girls is vital for their wellbeing, ensures sustainable poverty reduction, and drives social progress. So, to focus on the poorest and elevate them up in sustainable ways is a win-win. A mandate to focus on poverty reduction and tackle inequalities to ensure no one is left behind must underpin the new department’s global objectives in how it delivers on its development priorities. Without this, evidence suggests that poverty reduction quickly becomes diluted − the FCO, for example, has traditionally targeted significantly lower proportions of its aid spending than DFID on poverty (nine per cent vs 61 per cent on the poorest countries) and gender equality (24 per cent vs 65 per cent where gender is significant or primary objective).
Building Britain’s standing and impact through greater coherence in policy and practice
Ensuring the FCDO builds on the solid foundations laid by DFID to make sure development is an equal partner alongside diplomacy and other key areas will be critical to the success of this merger. Coherence across policy and practice in the department and beyond is essential. The world is watching as the UK takes a new course following Brexit and UK taxpayers are going to want high levels of transparency and accountability on government spending as the economy shrinks as a result of COVID-19.
Coherence has been an ambition of development and foreign policy for many years but the silos that limit the ability to respond effectively to the people and places most in need have not been satisfactorily resolved. Some progress has been made, but the merger offers the opportunity to make significant headway across Whitehall. The Rt Hon Dominic Raab spoke of ‘artificial lines’ that exist between aspects of government policy, and that bringing them into alignment is key. There is indeed the need for a new, shared, ambitious international strategy, that gives the new department a clear mandate, and a clear statement of the problems it is seeking to fix. There must also be strong scrutiny and accountability mechanisms to ensure this principle translates into practice. The Government must develop a new strategy that puts coherence across government at the centre to ensure a truly Global Britain that delivers an agenda of building a sustainable, stable and prosperous world.
As a result, the FCDO could become a leading department that coordinates and collaborates across government. It could, with its network of relationships and reach through diplomacy and defence, help bring together development agendas and ensure coherence with trade and climate policy. 2021 will be an important year for the UK to demonstrate coherence of policy as the Government hosts the G7 gathering and co-hosts with Italy COP26 Climate Change Conference.
So, with urgency, artificial silos between policy areas need to be bridged through better coordination between and within departments, sectors and in countries. When it comes to development cooperation, recent research on the UK’s progress on the humanitarian-development-peace nexus indicates key areas the FCDO should focus on. First is overarching policy and operational strategy where all policy frameworks must include an explicit steer to build in complementarity, coherence and collaboration with operational guidance to ensure top-level policy feeds right down to local level implementation. The second is systematically ensuring integration of interdependent policy areas in aid programming. The coherence that this should create then needs to be measurable and held to account. Third is operational structure, leadership and staffing. It will be critical that the highest level of FCDO management makes coherence a cross-organisational collective priority and ensures there are dedicated staff with the skills and responsibilities to support and catalyse colleagues and partners to implement this shift.
In terms of how the Government works with external stakeholders, the UK should be much more responsive to developing country leadership to align with country plans and priorities and strengthen local ownership of development. There must be strong alignment to shared and globally agreed goals. The FCDO must see itself as a true partner to those with whom we must work to tackle the significant global challenges we are faced with today in a way that is sustainable and truly responsive to needs.
Conclusions and recommendations
The merging of DFID and FCO has caused alarm bells for many about what this might mean for the future of the UK’s approach to global development and commitment to poverty eradication. The FCDO can and should protect the best of DFID’s culture − maintaining high levels of transparency, scrutiny and accountability and retaining UK aid’s poverty mandate. Going further and developing a new global strategy with coherence at its heart, and collaboration and coordination central to its implementation, may well achieve what DFID and many other countries’ development agencies have struggled with to date. This is a unique opportunity for the UK government to grow Britain’s standing further as an exemplar of best practice in global development and beyond. The FCDO would do well to remember the formula of four ‘C’s − Culture, Coherence, Coordination and Collaboration − to maintain Britain’s world-leading status in global development and beyond:
- Culture of transparency – maintain the strong commitment within the department itself and with the partners FCDO works with
- Coherence – strengthen the coherence of policy nationally, internationally, and with the SDG agenda
- Coordination – facilitate cooperative working across Whitehall on critical agendas including trade and climate
- Collaboration – work in close partnership with stakeholders and strengthen local ownership of development
Harpinder Collacott is the Executive Director of Development Initiatives (DI), leading DI’s work to ensure data-driven evidence is used to combat poverty, reduce inequality, and increase resilience. Her experience before heading up DI includes working with the War Crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone, in the philanthropic sector focusing on international human rights, and in various researcher roles for think tanks and in the UK and European parliaments. She is a graduate from the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge.
 Amy Dodd, Rob Tew, Anna Hope, Covid-19 and financing projections for developing countries, Development Initiatives, June 2020, www.devinit.org/resources/covid-19-and-financing-projections-developing-countries/
 DFID, FCO and FCDO, Press release: Foreign Secretary commits to more effective and accountable aid spending under new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Government, August 2020, www.gov.uk/government/news/foreign-secretary-commits-to-more-effective-and-accountable-aid-spending-under-new-foreign-commonwealth-and-development-office
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