Folding DfID into Foreign Office is retrograde step towards isolation – Ricky Ross

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It’s hard enough to get people agitated about the amalgamation of Whitehall departments in ordinary times. That the Department for International Development’s folding into the Foreign Office took place on the same day a young footballer trounced the government on its school meals policy, as well as the launch of a miracle Covid-19 treatment, helped relegate this important news to near the bottom of the pile. That it occurred while we’re trying to fix a global pandemic was, in the words of Rafael Behr in The Guardian, a little like “Denis Healey’s maxim that the moment to remove a man’s appendix is not when he is busy carrying a piano up a flight of stairs.”

There’s no doubt that sensible foreign-policy watchers are appalled. Here’s former ambassador and Associate Fellow at Chatham House, John Casson: “Merging DfID into the Foreign Office risks squandering and vandalising the national asset, not unleashing it, and at a time when the pandemic will push at least 60 million people into extreme poverty.”

Let me explain why I agree. I first travelled on a development visit in 1998. On that occasion I went with Christian Aid to see the work they were supporting with the landless movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra or MST) in Brazil. It was a life-changing visit for me, and about 15 years later I was given the chance to return to see how things were progressing. The MST are not without controversy. On my second visit my kind hosts (friends from Scotland) were visibly appalled that I should be visiting and supporting the landless people. To these prosperous citizens MST were a threat to civil society, and they had a good point. Social movements in South America are a thorn in the flesh of the establishment; they are born out of struggle and continue to exist often because political change has not offered any real progress in living standards for those at the bottom end of the economic scale.

So Christian Aid Scotland supported many groups that sought to gain access to undeveloped land, despite some of that endeavour involving “illegal” occupations on land technically owned, but nevertheless neglected, by absentee, wealthy landlords. It’s not hard to imagine that the interests of a development agency and the FCO could well be at odds in this scenario. Multiply that into the many countries supported by DfID and unpromising scenario emerges. Development at its heart seeks not just to offer a sticking plaster to countries suffering from natural disasters, epidemics or famine – it is also there to offer citizens of developing nations the opportunity to act for themselves.

I first went to Brazil with Christian Aid worker, Eildon Dyer. This week I asked her to reflect on the implications of the UK Government’s recent decision. She said: These are the sorts of organisations that can and do make changes through British aid money and without strings attached. It would be a tragedy to stop or withhold financial support from organisations like this, which is likely to be a consequence of this merger.”

Earlier this year my wife, Lorraine McIntosh, and I were part of a group who visited the Democratic Republic of Congo to see the work SCIAF are doing in South Kivu. This is an area rich in minerals, where almost all of the wealth that should be channeled back into the local economy is being syphoned off by illegal armed gangs who control the area through a brutal regime of sexual violence.

I asked Douglas Alexander, the former Labour International Development Secretary and also an ex-Foreign Office minister, to reflect on the end of DfID, based on what he knew of working in both departments. “Boris Johnson’s decision owes more to populist politics than foreign policy,” he told me. “Labour established DfID as an independent Cabinet department with a laser-like focus on poverty reduction. That clarity of purpose has helped deliver the UK its global leadership on development. Having served in both FfID and the FCO, I appreciate that diplomacy and development both really matter… they’re just not the same thing.”

What is a priority for DfID will not necessarily be an ambition shared by the FCO, where the history of ‘tied aid’ was often seen as a controlling influence holding countries back instead of allowing them to progress. Douglas reminded me how Labour’s decision to separate the FCO and DfID in 1997 was a direct counter to the corruption of the Pergau Dam scandal in the late 80s, when the dam (which Malaysia didn’t need) was financed with the money of British taxpayers in order to secure a major arms deal.

On our trip to DRC it was the Church there who were taking up much of the challenge of improving the lives of women affected by years of abuse caused by armed militias. The money SCIAF raised in this year’s Lenten campaign was Aid Matched by DfID and meant every pound raised in Scotland was doubled. Time after time we saw where this money had been spent and heard stories and songs of celebration by women who had been on the receiving end of the assistance already given under UK Aid Match. How will these important projects be affected by Monday’s restructuring decision? Here’s SCIAF’s director, Alistair Dutton:Aid, which has the purpose of providing humanitarian assistance and reducing extreme poverty, must not be made subordinate to foreign policy, the purpose of which is to promote British interests. The two departments serve two very different purposes and the merger will mean that our delivery of international development aid and our response to humanitarian crises will no longer be independent of our foreign and commercial policies.”

You might well think Alistair is bound to view the matter this way, but listen too to the voice of a recent Conservative International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart: “Most British diplomats lack the experience and skills to manage £100 million development programs. DfID staff have no background in traditional diplomacy. Trying to pretend these two very different organisations are one, damages both.”

We are capable of making a real and lasting difference to people across the world who can most use our advice, aid and investment. Like so many recent decisions made by 10 Downing Street, the decision to dilute the work of an important government department is insular, short-term and antithetical to a modern, international country. Rather than increasing our influence it’s yet another retrograde step towards isolation.

Ricky Ross is a musician and activist