NGOs scared, Think Tanks puzzled, Opposition silenced-What I learned after reading more than 40 articles on the DfID-FCO merger

Old headquarters building of Department for International Development in London
There are now more than 40 entries in my curated collection of news articles as well as opinion or think pieces on the proposed merger of UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to establish a new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
The overall tone is clear: It is a bad idea and it will weaken the UK’s development capacities on many levels.
But behind this unified view, disproportionately expressed by white Northern men, it becomes clear that large parts of the UK’s international development establishment are really worried about the decision, because it will most likely have negative implications for their future budget and scope of work.
My post focuses on NGOs, Think Tanks and the party political establishment, with the question in mind how these inevitable changes may affect organizations and the traditional set-up of how development is conceptualized, discussed, financed and implemented in the future.

NGOs are scared
DfID is a global bastion of technical and programmatic expertise on what works for women and girls. Consistently ranked the most transparent aid-spending department, it represents the gold standard for aid, delivering value for the British taxpayer and enabling the UK to tackle the injustice of gender inequality.
Can the government reassure us that DfID’s vision for gender equality will be adopted by the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and championed so the UK can continue to reach the women and girls in the world’s poorest countries?
This is from an op-ed signed by the three chief executives of Action Aid UK, CARE International UK and Plan International UK.
As much as I agree with the general sentiment of the piece, I am surprised how comfortably close the non-government sector seems to have been with DfID; after all, I would expect a bit more criticism from civil society towards a Tory-led ministry under the current conditions of austerity, Brexit and a catastrophic humanitarian record on the Covid response.
But with dwindling donations from the public, an overall bleak global economic outlook and established links with DfID I understand why there is little open critique towards the government across the sector.
Danish civil society funding, for example, quickly came under pressure after the DANIDA integration into the foreign ministry and NGOs are scared that they could be one of the big losers of the proposed merger.

Think Tanks were showed up
If you scroll through the list of entries in my collection you will notice that many international development Thinks Tanks and research institutions commented critically on the proposed merger.
They were not consulted, their mantra of ‘evidence-based policy-making’ ridiculed by Boris Johnson and his government and, similar to NGOs, the established relationships over research uptakes, knowledge management, evaluations or project implementation could be in danger.
I remember that during my studies at IDS the defunding of its core budget in the aftermath of Thatcher’s neoliberalistic policies was deeply ingrained in institutional memory-the proposed merger could be the 21st century version of this shock, leaving many large Think Tank exposed to medium-term funding challenges.

The opposition is silent
Former Prime Ministers and most recent DfID secretaries have come forward to criticize the proposed merger.
But I have not come across pieces from Labour, other political parties or the political establishment that strongly condemn the merger; international development has never been a top priority on any political agenda and this silence is probably an indication that among all the other political turmoil the future of aid may not be deemed particularly important.

And what about views from the global South?
I have come across a few, usually more general ‘we will miss DfID as a trusted partner’ comments, but if the list of authors is any indication, it seems that Northern white men seem particularly vocal about the proposed merger.
At the moment racism and aid work are widely debated in the sector, localization of aid is high on many organizations’ agenda or the future of aid in adaptive systems is discussed and it leaves the question how and where traditional donors and their implementing structures come into these debates. So perhaps the silence is not just shock, but also a more deeply-rooted skepticism that DfID, FCO or FCDO really stood for or will be the future of aid?

At the end of the day, the UK’s development sector will be worse off with the proposed merger-something the Johnson government knows and most likely did on purpose to further weaken critical voices across civil society.
The current situation is also a reminder that evidence-based policy, thorough research and efficient implementation of aid will not ‘save’ the traditional ecosystem of organizations, approaches and exchanges-not being too ‘political’ or critical and letting ‘the evidence speak for itself’ on how the taxpayers’ money was efficiently spent was not enough to save DfID and the ripple effects will be felt for many years-especially in a post-pandemic, post-Brexit era of diminished British power, money & influence.

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