Johnson’s DfID merger is sending us back in time – again.

Aside from the plausible accusations that the Government’s merging this week of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign Office was a “media stunt” to distract away from their U-turn earlier in the day on free school meals, the announcement about DfID was depressingly predictable, and in-step with an administration, yet again, talking about their vision for “change” but acting in ways that only serve to drag the country backwards.

I’ve plenty of disparagement to channel at both Labour and Conservative leaderships over the last 20 years. However, under Claire Short for the first six years of Tony Blair’s Government, in my opinion we experienced a conviction and clarity about the role of DfID that has since to be matched.

Blair’s re-branding and re-positioning of DfID (previously the ‘Overseas Development Administration’) as having full departmental status, complete with a Secretary of State was, in itself, a turning point.

During her tenure, Short had plenty of critics, however a cornerstone outcome of these early years with her at the helm was the Partnership Programme Agreement (PPA). The PPA was a multi-million pound investment from DfID that was used to leverage their relationships with British INGOs (International Non-Government Organisations) – including CARE International, for whom I worked from 2006.

From first hand experience, I saw how effective these funds were for INGOs looking to build the capacities of their teams around the world and, in doing that, mobilising local community based organisations.

The PPA covered Latin America to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South and East Asia, all the way to Vanuatu in the Pacific and funding wasn’t “restricted” – the term used by institutional donors which means money is earmarked only to be spent on certain items. Instead, it was more simply a requirement that funds complemented DfID’s priority areas of work – which initially included: conflict and peace building; women’s economic development; governance; and private sector engagement.

Following the Iraq invasion in 2003, and the Asian Tsunami in December 2004 and then, indeed, throughout the period I was based in London (from 2006 to 2011) DfID consistently updated the issues and geographies they felt to be of prime importance.

As DfID’s global coverage was reviewed under Cameron’s team from 2010, offices in Latin America closed first, deemed predominantly a region consisting of “middle-income” status countries and less in need of traditional aid. South East Asia was next (they closed their Vietnam office in 2016) and overall the nature of PPA funding and how it used was dictated by other criteria.

From here on it felt like DfID was re-purposed all over again. Whilst Cameron was committed to DfID receiving and spending 0.7% of GDP (the magical figure to which very few donor countries have aspired) he introduced an annual “value for money” evaluator which held back funds until organisations could prove they had delivered results on the ground.

On the one hand, he was calling out agencies on being more accountable (as well as trying to keep Daily Mail readers charmed for polling days, given the rising outrage propagated by the “Red Tops” about British aid money being sent to countries such as India – a nation with 350 million people living on less than one dollar a day, but also housing a nascent space programme).

On the other hand, it is ludicrous to measure meaningful change taking place in under twelve months. At the time, the previous 7-8 years of PPA funded work was only just on the verge of being able to quantify ways in which programmes had addressed gender norms, let alone to have fully rehabilitated a state such as Tamil Nadu, which had been destroyed during the Tsunami.

And so, in place of a more open, thoughtful and practical distribution of funds, through mechanisms like the PPA, the Tories instead focused on trade issues, on supporting ex-commonwealth countries (in particular Kenya, which hosted regular delegations of Ministers and their wives) and on gradually reducing the amount of money they were prepared to invest in partnerships with INGOs.

I don’t feel qualified to mention the fine balance – always there – with which the British Government has forever had to deal with being one of the largest manufacturers and suppliers of high grade military weapons the world over, whilst at the same time being held up as a beacon of ‘know-how’ when it comes to their work on social injustice, poverty and inequality. Go figure. Perhaps that is for another blog.

What I do know is that, within that complex backdrop, DfID had many very progressive years of designing a new approach, and a more appropriate role for itself and for its international ambassadors, be they individuals or partner organisations.

Johnson and Co. have just rendered that progress irrelevant with this merger. Just as the Australians have done with their previous international development arm, now part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), in the process slashing millions of previously sacred aid money. Not that dissimilar too, to the stance taken by Donald Trump since he took office, and cut the legs off the US Government’s aid department (USAID) budgets.

These power-plays are related. They smack of Governments losing the foresight and the global citizenship credentials required to sit at some of the world’s most important decision making tables.

The DfID merger is sending the UK back in time – a core characteristic of the Johnson administration on many fronts – and it’s a terrible, terrible shame.

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