The announcement that the UK Department for International Development (DFID) is to be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), although not a complete surprise, arrived with very little forewarning or the anticipated consultation through the Integrated Review. Taking this decision before the Integrated Review had barely started, and in the middle of a global pandemic, is certainly not the rigorous approach we had hoped for and leaves us with some serious concerns.
First and foremost is the risk this could pose to all that DFID did well – tackling poverty and global challenges through evidence-based, transparent and accountable approaches. Second are questions about whether and how the establishment of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will really result in better coordination across government and represent value for money for the UK taxpayer.
Research and learning for global challenges
IDS has worked with successive UK governments – and departments from the Ministry of Overseas Development to the Department for International Development – to tackle global challenges based on evidence since our inception in 1966. Established originally as one of the first international development training institutes we have also helped to embed a culture of learning around development through mobilising knowledge produced through diverse research projects and centres with global partners; ongoing research-led training courses and their alumni – many of whom have gone on to hold key development leadership positions in DFID and all over the world; and through specialised platforms such as the Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development Programme (K4D). This focus on research and learning must be strengthened, not lost, in the new department, and extended across all Overseas Development Assistance (ODA)-spending government departments.
Fundamentally this is because research and evidence make for better, more effective development, informed by real-world issues, experiences, contexts and complexities. Development designed and conducted in an evidence vacuum is, at best, likely to miss its mark, and at worst, downright dangerous. It is also because the vital, and globally unique, leadership in transformative research aimed at tackling global challenges, is a UK success story, in which DFID has played a central role. Research should remain an important part of the ‘Global Britain’ offer and be recognised as critical to the UK’s soft power. DFID’s skills, capacity and sustained investment in this area should be retained and reinforced if the new department is to achieve its ambitions and value for money for the UK taxpayer.
Investment of UK aid in research and learning led by IDS and its partners worldwide has played a critical role in, for example, increasing tax revenues in countries such as Uganda, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, developing programmes that saw 95% of its participants in Bangladesh move out of extreme poverty, helping to bring an end to the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak through adapting burial practices and stopping disease transmission, tackling the worst forms of child labour in South Asia and protecting freedom of religion and belief. It has supported new approaches to bringing essential knowledge into the hands of development and humanitarian practitioners in real-time, such as the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform now informing responses to COVID-19.
Accountable and transparent UK Aid tackling poverty and climate change
As the COVID-19 pandemic, responses and impacts unfold and we seek to rebuild and transform societies economies and lives, in the UK and across the world, the role of research across sciences and disciplines, delivered through international partnerships, has never been so important.
To secure the future for UK development expertise and to have an effective Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, I hope that the UK Government will commit to:
- Poverty reduction as the primary objective of UK Aid spending and to remaining an active member of the OECD DAC. ‘Global Britain’ has an important role to play in upholding the international consensus and improving the global aid system at a time when pressing challenges such as climate change and pandemics demand more not less international cooperation. The UK also needs to avoid any return to the kind of approach that led to scandals such as the Pergau Dam.
- Spending at least three percent of DFID’s budget on funding the innovative, international, and cross-disciplinary research and evidence necessary to tackle the most pressing global challenges, from ensuring resilience to climate, health and economic shocks; building inclusive economies, and addressing pervasive vulnerabilities and injustices, to ensuring prosperous and fulfilling lives and livelihoods amidst changing environments, cities, technologies and more.
- Investing in international development research as set out in the Industrial Strategy’s International Research and Innovation Strategy (May 2019).
- Upholding the transparency standards of DFID as recognised by the Aid Transparency Index.
- Ensuring proper scrutiny of UK Aid spending through a strengthened Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) and a dedicated parliamentary select committee.
- International development leadership at Cabinet level and retaining a Chief Scientific Advisor and Chief Economist for development.
- Learning from DFID’s experience and expertise on building and sustaining global research partnerships to tackle global challenges and integrating that approach across the new FCDO.
- Ensuring the strategic focus and coherence of UK ODA spent on research across HMG through the Strategic Coherence of ODA-funded Research (SCOR) Board.
- Undertaking a rigorous and thorough consultation around these and related issues through the Integrated Review – now too late to shape the crucial decision over whether a merger should occur, but not too late to shape what it will look like.
At such a pivotal moment for ‘Global Britain’, as the UK has left the European Union and prepares to host the UN Climate Change conference (COP26), we must ensure that the FCDO does not lose sight of what the UK is globally recognised and respected for – a commitment to tackle the most pressing global challenges based on evidence of what works generated through equitable and sustainable international partnerships and transparent and accountable investment.