17 June 2020

As a former Foreign Secretary, I know Boris is right to close DFID


As the last Foreign Secretary who had overall responsibility for overseas aid, I am delighted to welcome the proposed merger of the Department for International Development (DFID) back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – with one major caveat which I will come to later.

I am a strong supporter of overseas aid, in which the United Kingdom is, rightly, a world leader. There is, of course, an ethical obligation for the richer countries of the world to help the poorest as they emerge from poverty and underdevelopment.

The United Kingdom, having been the British Empire and, now, a leading member of the Commonwealth, has a particular responsibility which it has never shirked regardless of which political party has been in power.

Overseas aid is an expression of soft power and I have always been sceptical of those who believe that foreign policy considerations should never influence the disbursement of the resources that are available to the government. It was such a view that led Tony Blair’s government to make DFID a separate Government ministry in 1997.

No one country can help every nation around the world which needs aid and support. Choices and priorities must be identified. It is not unreasonable that we should concentrate on those countries with whom we have a historic and, through the Commonwealth, a continuing connection. There are also other countries where our relationship may be more recent but where we can have a legitimate and respectable aspiration to win their friendship and support on wider foreign policy objectives, as well as helping them realise their development aspirations.

The resources that have been available to DFID are not modest, at around £10 billion a year. David Cameron can claim the credit for making the UK one of the few countries that meets the UN target of 0.7% of GDP in the funding of overseas aid.

That was commendable. What was not was to embed that 0.7% in an Act of Parliament, making it the law of the land that, regardless of the state of the economy or of the public finances, International Development would be guaranteed a fixed percentage of Britain’s GDP. Neither the NHS, nor education, nor defence nor social security have such protection.

But the reality has been even more foolish. While the percentage of GDP is fixed, inevitably the sum DFID receives each year is not – it changes according to the state of the economy. This has meant DFiD’s budget has not been predictable, and its fluctuations have, in a number of years, led the department to have more resources at its disposal than it knew what to do with at the time.

Few other Western countries have overseas aid disbursed by a separate government department – and the disadvantages of DFID being separate from the Foreign Office are clear. Firstly, DFID, in taking decisions as to whether to provide millions of pounds to one country rather than another does not need to consider whether it will assist or confuse the UK’s wider foreign policy. The Foreign Secretary may not wish to help a particular country because of its poor human rights record. The DFID Secretary might take the view that the aid that is to be provided is more important and is, in any event, not directly relevant to the human rights situation. The outcome is confusion, both in this country and in the recipient country, as to what the policies and priorities of Her Majesty’s Government are.

There are also disagreements as to how much of the aid budget should be distributed as bilateral aid from the UK to particular countries, and how much should be given to UN humanitarian or development agencies or other global institutions. The Foreign Secretary is likely to prefer aid projects going to particular countries rather than international institutions because of the specific benefits that can be obtained for Britain’s wider foreign policy, while DFID would be unwilling to apply such a criterion.

Put simply, there needs to be a structure that ensures that such Aid is not disbursed either to a country, or in a manner, that would clash with and damage the UK’s wider foreign policy. And so I welcome the return of DFID to the Foreign Office for that reason.

But, as I said, there is a caveat. I strongly urge the government to ensure that DFID should have very considerable autonomy within the Foreign Office, as it did in my day. Indeed there is no reason why it should not continue to have in day-to-day charge, a Minister of Cabinet status. The Foreign Secretary should work very closely with the relevant Minister and only intervene when it is important in respect of the UK’s wider foreign policy objectives.

I had Lynda Chalker as the Minister in charge of what was then called Overseas Development Assistance. She was not in the Cabinet but should have been. She was the best Overseas Aid Minister the UK has ever had. The Foreign Office had two Cabinet Ministers when Sir Ian Gilmour worked with Lord Carrington, though Carrington, as Foreign Secretary, had the last word. A similar set-up should be re-adopted now.

There will inevitably be an outcry at this news – from the aid lobby, Labour, the Lib Dems and from the Guardian, who will claim that this merger is a sinister plot whose purpose is to decimate the aid budget and make the poor poorer. Such claims are nonsense and it will be easy for the Government to demonstrate that that is the case.

Critics have to realise that the Foreign Office has been significantly weakened in recent years. The Foreign Secretary no longer had any responsibility for Overseas Aid; International Trade had a Department of its own, and the Foreign Secretary was excluded from Brexit negotiations, despite the massive consequences for British foreign policy of leaving the EU.

It is to the Prime Minister’s credit that that unhealthy situation is now being reversed. Dominic Raab is not just the Foreign Secretary; he has also been designated the First Secretary of State. The change of status as regards DFID should also be seen as part of that process and is to be much welcomed.

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Secretary from 1995-97.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.