- Research into similar exercises in other countries has shown they lead to an exodus of talent and a loss of influence with key partners
Experts have warned of a loss of senior staff when the Department for International Development merges with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Photograph: Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Corbis/Getty Images
Aid experts have warned of a brain drain of senior staff from the Department for International Development (DfID) when it merges with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which could damage the UK’s international standing.
Downing Street is facing growing anger from DfID staff over the timing of the merger announcement last week, and the manner in which it was done. The merger had been long trailed, but was announced without union consultation and with many staff finding out from the media.
Richard Moore, a previous deputy director of AusAid, Australia’s former aid agency, said 2,000 years of development experience vanished after the agency merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2013. He predicted a similar loss of expertise in Britain, unless measures are taken to retain staff.
“It will be very hard to stop an exodus of talent, but the decisions that are subsequently made will be critical to its scale,” Moore said. “Professionals will want to see international development as a foreign policy goal, not just a fig-leaf for doling out money for short-term ends. They’ll want their expertise to be recognised, valued and influential in decision making.”
In a review of the Australian merger last year, Moore found the loss of senior, locally engaged development staff had the “biggest single impact on the quality of management of development activities”. The new standalone department lost influence with key partner governments and on major international development issues. “Dumbing down development doesn’t work,” Moore said.DfID staff ‘devastated and demoralised’ by Foreign Office mergerRead more
Moore interviewed managers in government, private enterprises, civil society and academia. He found that a third saw more gains than losses from the new merger while a quarter believed its impact was strongly negative. About 40% said that while basic systems continued to perform adequately, “risks are rising and opportunities are being missed”.
Moore could see similarities between the Australian and UK mergers.
“In both cases, the decision was political and based on untested and erroneous assumptions, rather than a careful assessment of what arrangements would best meet national interests.”
Delegating decisions about the new organisational architecture to those with “little knowledge of the business and what’s needed to make it a success” was a mistake, he said. A public debate should have been carried out in advance. “The UK still has time to do this,” he said.
“The swallowing of DfID into the FCO suggests to me really a change in the mandate and the mission and the culture of the place,” she said.
“Doing something about reassuring staff they will maintain the expertise [at] DfID is very important. I’m not sure so far that’s been a priority.”
Gulrajani’s report, published in 2018, found that between 2013 and 2015, administrative costs in the newly formed Global Affairs Canada fell from 5.2% to 4.6% of official development assistance.
“The trade-offs were the loss in expertise. Both Canada and Australia said they had too much loss of expertise.
“The political context is crucial. Foreign affairs departments can be successful in delivering development – look at Scandinavian countries. But the problem is the background of this merger is a political context that wants to put development on the back foot. ”
Gulrajani said it was important the UK embrace safeguards, including parliamentary oversight of the aid budget, and should look again at giving development cabinet-level representation. She found that countries with cabinet-level leadership in development performed better on aid quality indices.The Guardian view on scrapping DfID: a new front in a culture warRead more
It has emerged that the UK government’s international development committee, which scrutinises UK aid, is facing closure, however last week foreign secretary Dominic Raab promised parliament “maximum scrutiny” over the aid budget and the merger.
Stephen Brown, professor of political science at the University of Ottawa and editor of a book on the effectiveness of the Canadian International Development Agency, said: “The structure matters less than the political will. Whichever structure you have, it depends on what you want to do and from what I hear about the UK’s motivation, it’s pretty clear it’s not about poverty alleviation. In Canada, it was not so blatantly self interested. The official reason was to bring development to the table with diplomacy and trade.”
Ian Mitchell, an economist who leads the Center for Global Development’s work in Europe, said loss of expertise was a challenge for the new department, which is to be called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
“It’s a real risk. The Foreign Office has played a big role in climate-change diplomacy. DfID has similar expertise on humanitarian reform and shaping the international policy approach on migration.
“The Foreign Office will want to continue to think about how migration happens globally in terms of making sure that migrants have safe places to go. And DfID has expertise on that. There’s always a risk that that expertise is lost.”
The government has said that while some roles and responsibilities across DfID and the FCO will change, there will be no compulsory redundancies.
One former DfID veteran, who worked at the organisation when it was part of the FCO before 1997, said: “Lots of people will go if they feel the integrity of UK aid is being compromised.
“The world won’t end. We’ve been here before and you can still do lots of good development work. But the agenda and the priorities will be a lot more politically driven. There were plenty of Pergau dams [UK aid linked to a major arms deal]. That is the real danger: a lot more blurring of lines between development and UK interests.”