Parliamentary scrutiny after the DFID-FCO merger

Accountability and scrutiny are vital to effective governance. UK Government aid and development strategies and programmes are scrutinised by Parliament (the International Development Committee and the Public Accounts Committee), related financial watchdogs (the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and the National Audit Office) and civil society (including NGOs and universities – albeit many of whom are recipients of DFID funding for delivery or analysis services). 

How have the scrutineers responded to the news that DFID and FCO will merge into one government department? Generally, negatively. The Chair of the IDSC said: “with existing challenges of violence, famine and disease compounded with the devastating effects of coronavirus, the PM’s timing couldn’t be worse. The future for the UK’s world-leading government humanitarian work is now in jeopardy”. She pointed to evidence from Canada and Australia that found mergers did not lead to benefits and even reduced influence and soft power.

The IDSC published an interim report on the effectiveness of UK aid and said a merger could undermine each department’s different goals, specialist expertise and ways of working. They recommended that it should not be done in haste and government should make an evidence-led rationale to parliament with detailed costs and benefits (IDSC, HC 215, June 2020, p.34). Barely a week later – with its much vaunted ‘integrated review’ of aid effectiveness paused due to the pandemic – the Government rushed out an announcement of exactly the opposite.

Evidence from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) argued that the reason that DFID has ‘established a reputation as a leading global development agency with a strong focus on results, transparency and evaluation’ is because it has been a separate specialist aid ministry since 1997. They warned that pursuing secondary aims (e.g., to promote trade), which is more likely if DFID is no longer separate, will undermine UK government influence as a global development superpower and its ability to achieve longer-term benefit for both the globe as well as our national interest. Furthermore, the UK will lose the separate scrutiny regime (including the IDSC) that is critical to maintaining standards.

The National Audit Office (NAO) expressed concern that ‘reorganisations can be disruptive and costly. We have also found that the benefits intended are often poorly defined.’ They made it plain that merger should only be considered if carefully planned and executed. Civil society’s Real Aid Index found other Whitehall departments have allocated aid resources poorly and that only DFID rated ‘strong’ on all three measures of poverty focus, effectiveness and transparency (IDSC interim report, HC 215, June 2020, p.31). It has been widely reported that the culture of the FCO and DFID are so different that it will take years to develop common assumptions, approaches and processes of learning.

Academics across development studies departments have explained why the disadvantages of the merger massively outweigh the gains. It also seems pretty clear that a ‘single powerful voice’ out on the world stage can rest perfectly well, perhaps better, on a plurality of points of view, and portfolios, across Whitehall and within Cabinet, speaking truths to each other’s power (soft or not). 

I would only add that the accountability for aid spending will be weakened by fusing the FCO and DFID into one department if scrutiny arrangements blindly follow suit. Just as it will be difficult to mediate the tensions and contradictions between their goals, holding them to account from outside will become more complex. The IDSC has developed extensive specialist expertise, networks, and contacts and makes excellent use of these to hold Ministers and officials to account. How can the quality of inquiries, engagement and reports be maintained if one complex remit is simply folded into another (not to mention the substantial budget and operations coming over too)? An over-burdened parliamentary committee will translate into weaker scrutiny which could easily compromise the UK government’s accountability and capacity to learn and continuously improve through constructive challenge. The Government should be mindful that with soft power does not come with soft responsibility.

The merger does offer the opportunity to create a Select Committee that looks at Official Development Assistance across all government departments and research funders like UK Research and Innovation. This would be mean that the UKRI could continue the work it has begun, in partnership with UK universities like SOAS, in encouraging UK academics to facilitate more evidence giving from the global south. When developing and reviewing policy and programmes in the global south, it is their experts who should be consulted not only their colleagues in UK universities who claim to speak for them. Such a committee would then also provide a home for ICAI to report to if the IDSC is abolished. 

The significance of this scrutiny is not just about collecting evidence and producing reports that have an influence on those departments. The point of parliamentary scrutiny is that it also acts as a deterrent, a guide and a moral compass – inspiring government to spend aid funding wisely in the first place because they know that specialists are watching them. Everyone benefits if high standards of scrutiny are maintained except those who would like to cut corners.