The British government looks set to restructure the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) with potentially dramatic consequences for overseas UK aid.
The restructuring envisages a merger between the FCO and the Department for International Development (DfID) with a view to creating greater alignment between diplomacy and overseas assistance.
The new organization will be called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and it will reportedly be fully operational by September.
Announcing the changes in the House of Commons, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, claimed combining DfID with the FCO would “unite our aid with our diplomacy”.
Taking a swipe at DfID, the PM claimed that UK aid spending had “been treated as some giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interests”.
The PM claimed that the often parallel roles pursued by the FCO and DfID “undermines the coherence of our foreign policy”.
Despite reaffirming Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 percent of national income on overseas assistance (currently worth around £15 billion), Johnson’s plan has come under sharp criticism from across the political spectrum.
Labor party leader, Keir Starmer, denounced the move on the grounds that it would “diminish Britain’s place in the world”.
Describing DfID as one of the UK’s “best performing departments”, Starmer questioned the timing of the move by accusing the PM of trying to “deflect attention” from the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
This view was echoed by Tory MP Andrew Mitchell, who said abolishing DfID would amount to a “quite extraordinary mistake”.
Mitchell, who led DfID between 2010 and 2012, claimed the abolition of DfID would “at a stroke” destroy a “key aspect of Global Britain”.
The sudden and dramatic change announced by Johnson has also elicited a rare reaction from former Tory PM David Cameron.
Cameron, who was PM from 2010 to 2016, described the planned merger as “a mistake” that will lead to “less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas”.
Whilst critics will continue to bemoan the timing of the announced merger – and the real intentions behind it – a clear advantage is that the abolition of DfID will finally thrust the real function of British overseas aid into sharp relief.
As the PM underlined today, the whole point of overseas aid is to function in “reference to UK interests” and by extension to advance the interests of British diplomacy around the world.