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Governance in a joined-up world?

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Ben French sets out three opportunities for the way the merger of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development could work.

“The world was less manageable than he had imagined; this machine had too many crazy moving parts to incorporate in a single lucid theory.” - The Blunder of Our Government

This quote sums up policymaking, in the UK, and beyond. It is simply too complex to ever be fully under control. The merger of DFID and the FCO, while expected, was clearly not planned - at least not for 16 June 2020. The international development blogosphere has exploded with arguments against, and some for, the merger. This is not one of those blogs.

I am interested in identifying the opportunities present in the merger - for better or for worse. It will be complex and messy. It will be beyond the control of any one policymaker. The combined department will simply be too sprawling to be easily shaped in one direction, and herein lies the opportunity, to experiment and build on existing success.

Even when separate departments there have been many examples of DFID and the FCO working well together - to engage other governments in a development discourse that is good for the UK and our partners. For example, think about how the UK Government made use of development funding, through DFID and the Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), and political nous, to bring the world together in support of Syrian refugees at the Syria conferences. Or, on a smaller scale, the collaboration between the FCO and DFID in a multitude of countries to promote the rule of law – through political engagement and support to civil society.

The question is how to build on these examples? The Governance Position Paper (GPP), launched by DFID last year, provides a solid foundation for this discussion. The three key themes in the paper - what the UK focuses on (values), when and for how long (time horizons for engagement), and how the UK engages (delivery).

Within the context of these three themes, what are the opportunities?

Values: We know that the disparities between ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries are narrowing. In 1990, 65% of the world’s population lived in low-income countries. Thirty years on this figure is less than 10% and aid funding has become less significant to recipient countries as an overall proportion of GDP. These changes are already re-shaping donor-government dynamics.

In this context, the most important question is how we want these partnerships to develop going forward. The GPP talks about countries ‘moving beyond aid to a partnership based on trade, mutual prosperity, and the sharing of expertise’. Covid-19 has already demonstrated the changed landscape of partnership, with China sending medical supplies and expertise to Italy, and South-South exchanges in advice and knowledge rapidly increasing.

This changing dynamic requires a re-positioning of interest. This is opportunity number one. The FCO clearly thinks about and understands the UK national interest, as well as how to cultivate international and national partnerships. DFID’s focus has been on longer-term economic and social trends at the country and regional level. Brought together this is a potent combination that has the potential to support UK and developmental needs. But, to be successful these dynamics need to be made explicit in decision making. Specifically, the new department should seek to explicitly consider three key questions in determining their programming:

  1. UK strategic objectives: what is it that the UK is seeking to achieve, and how does it want to develop its relationship with the relevant country.
  2. The development context: economic and social conditions. The type of development challenge is central in determining the relationship between donor and recipient, and the depth and complexity of aid programs. Diagnosing these new dynamics is integral to effective policy debates.
  3. Political feasibility:  recipient governments standing and stability in the country. There are many elements at play; the stability within a country; the appetite a government may have in the run-up to, or after elections; how donor funding and its stipulations play out with opposition parties and with the electorate (if a democracy).

Time horizons. Dealing with complex development problems, in difficult circumstances, requires space to assume risks, to try new things - and to fail. Balancing the short-term imperative with the longer term is critical to developmental and foreign policy success. The Governance Policy Paper noted that DFID needs to be more creative and adaptive to the specific country contexts it is working within. This is opportunity number two.

In my experience, the FCO is often more willing to take a tactical risk to achieve a longer-term strategic aim. Equally DFID has always brought the patience born of a recognition that development and change takes a long time. Together these two drivers provide a healthy tension to take advantage of opportunities today, while also maintaining that longer-term focus.

The challenge is going to be ensuring there is a clear framework for keeping these two-time horizons in line. The National Security Council country strategy process contains many of the key elements of this, but it needs to be strengthened to better bring together the diplomatic and the developmental. Incorporating two time horizons into these strategies will help - not only to position development programmes, but also to consider longer term economic opportunities. Here DFID’s diagnostic capabilities will provide a key element for longer term strategic thinking.

Delivery. This is opportunity number three and the most exciting. DFID has built up a raft of skills over its decades of existence, including very effective project management abilities. Yet, the ability to manage and influence politically has never fully been realised. The merger is an opportunity to bring both more tactical delivery to the forefront, something that the FCO through the CSSF has often been very good at, with deeper and more effective political engagement.

The development community calls this tactical delivery, thinking and working politically (TWP). The GPP strongly emphasises the need for the UK to work politically, and the new department should focus on making this a reality. The opportunity is to explore different approaches, and more targeted bilateral assistance modalities, making use of British companies. This starts with improving how Terms of Reference for projects and programmes are designed. We need to recognise that influence and effective engagement comes from sustained interaction and developing teams over a period of time, rather than through a rapid sprint. Building in a period for team formation – both within the delivery team, between the UK government and host government, and between the Embassy and delivery team - is a simple action that can enable success and move us away from the hamster wheel of seeking short term results.

Equally, the newly merged department should focus on and demand that suppliers - whether multilateral, or through an NGO, or commercial firm - build national teams that actually demonstrate an ability to engage with government, or their national context, to deliver impact. In this the experience of the FCO in building relationships is an opportunity to encourage a shift in thinking about how we deliver projects. The natural instinct of the FCO to be more political will create challenges, but it will drive teams to think about how they work, and to provide solutions that respond to a shared interest in positive development outcomes.

The merger of DFID and the FCO is going ahead. It won’t be as straightforward as a statement to Parliament may make it sound, and within that mess there are opportunities to shape how the UK works globally to deliver development assistance more effectively, and with greater benefit both for the UK and the recipients of aid.