Boris Johnson’s Merger of DFID – Will it Massacre UK’s ODA?

Viewpoint by Patrick I Gomes

The writer, Dr Patrick I Gomes, was Secretary-General of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States for five years until Angola’s Ambassador to the European Union, Mr. Georges Rebelo Pinto Chikoti, took over on March 1. The 79-nation inter-regional body officially became the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) on April 5, 2020. Dr Gomes was previously Ambassador of the Republic of Guyana, to the EU in Brussels.

PORT OF SPAIN | Trinidad & Tobago (IDN) – UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in the British Parliament on June 16, 2020 his intention to scrap the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) and have it merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). This is the UK’s counterpart Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the US-type State Department.

The FCO therefore crafts and executes the cabinet-decisions of government’s foreign policy, which will normally include diplomatic relations with foreign governments, negotiates economic, commercial deals, including arms sales, for instance, as well as expressing the voice and views of the UK in the multilateral arena, principally at the United Nations Security Council of which the UK is one of the five permanent members.  

Dr Patroick I GomesIn contrast, the currently existing, DFID is the cabinet-level Ministry with responsibility for policy and programming of the Government’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), commonly called “aid”, in its various forms of grants or loans for developing countries. These are classified as eligible for ODA by the United Nations and the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD).

DFID over the last decade and a half has certainly attained a respectable reputation in its work on poverty eradication, or the more conservatively embraced World Bank-promoted notion of “poverty reduction strategies”. A significant contributing factor for the praise of the UK and DFID has been its establishment by law of the commitment made by developed countries that 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) should be allocated for ODA. 

Moreover, in its contribution to the European Development Fund (EDF), the 12% annual amount of approximately Euro 20 billion has enabled significant influence in ensuring the programming of development finance cooperation for the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP, now OACP) countries at the national level of 78 member states, 6 regional economic communities (RECs) and regional integration organisations (RIOs) and Intra-ACP programmes in areas of concentration defined by a consultative and co-management process mainly aimed at fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN’s Agenda 2030.

Faced therefore with this generally successful record of DFID’s performance, as a full-scale Cabinet-level Ministry committed to international development, it is understandable that consternation and dismay were expressed by Boris Johnson’s intention. It is said among those surprised, that the merger marks a reversal of the forward-looking policies of former Prime Minister’s Cameron and Brown as well as Tory Tony Blair.

With the core focus of “development assistance”, previously directed at poverty reduction strategies, the overriding concern from budget constraints has become efficiency as claimed by PM Johnson. The merger will also enable enlarged scope in pursuing arms deals in the perpetuation of war and violence, rather than peace and the livelihoods of many in developing countries devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The placing of DFID by a merger with Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCOD) in a secondary and subordinate role, without Ministerial cabinet-level representation implies addressing poverty on a global scale becomes subservient to national foreign policy self-interest. This seems contradictory at a time when “Global Britain” is a cry for Johnson and his Conservative government.

While the strong negative questioning of this DFID decline is certainly an understandable immediate reaction, one may do well to see an opportunity to once again turn on its head, the subject of development assistance and aid-giving as if “development” is primarily a matter of transferring funds from the so-called “rich” nations to poor countries.

This mistaken notion continues to give rise to reactions of “aid-fatigue” in some sections of the public in developed countries where governments do not unequivocally show a commitment to allocating a fixed portion of their GNI. In addition, there is less willingness and openness to global interdependence, so sharply conveyed by the corona Covid-19 pandemic, in which mutually beneficial investments and technology innovations can contribute financially and strengthen principles for global security and peace, as genuinely beneficial to interests of both developing and developed countries.

The historical origins of the relationship between advanced, industrial countries, referred to as “developed”, invariably Western colonial powers, must be the starting point of the processes by which what is called “underdevelopment” is the condition in the “poor or developing” countries.

Without this historical perspective, one approaches “development assistance” for, or to, “developing countries” as if they are fixed entities for which development projects are to be undertaken, in piecemeal, sectoral areas and then the “developing” will become “developed”.  This donor-centric, projectivized approach has informed development assistance for several decades and certainly characterised the era of United Nations (UN) Development Decades beginning in 1960 – 1970 for the first development decade. 

In what is referred to as top-down or donor-driven development project assistance the conferring of grants and loans as main financial mechanisms were dominant but many criticisms were advocated in the relations between countries, and within countries that are structured and constrain the agency of those in a condition of poverty and underdeveloped to be denied access to the means and resources to realise an improvement in the quality of their lives.

I venture therefore to share a few thoughts of my own which are expressed from three main dimensions. Historical, structural and agency factors in development finance cooperation

Firstly, my starting point is the need for an understanding of poverty and underdevelopment from a historical, holistic and global angle of the power relations affecting the developing country and developed country from which development finance is negotiated, since aid is not politically neutral.  

Secondly, one needs a position on dominant ideas and theories of development and to what one subscribes as informing the development strategies adopted, since aid programmes are not value-free.

Thirdly, the agency and actors in executing aid-funded programmes and projects entail a struggle of classes, groups or strata in the developing society and developed sponsoring agency or country whose interests are at stake. From this follows the fact that aid aims to satisfy state, business or community interests, for instance.

From these dimensions, once taken into account as complex and multidimensional as they are, of necessity imply that development assistance requires a long-term vision by which the reduction or eradication of poverty is inevitably tied to overcoming structures of inequality. Such a vision of development in which financial assistance, or as lumped together in a generic concept of “development finance cooperation”, has as its ultimate goal the material and spiritual upliftment of the great majority of the lives of people in the Global South.

Concluding thoughts

My remarks and the above principles, offered as necessary to inform a multidimensional approach to challenge and overcome underdevelopment and poverty, are not meant to give a prescription for any specific region or country. This is the policy prerogative of countries, which as members of the UN have committed to an overarching framework of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These are universal and inter-related but in practice each country has its priority policies related to resource endowments, governance mechanism, investment and trade objectives and environmental management commitments. These factors relate to on-going processes and outcomes which enable the basis for a cumulative impact towards achievement of their national sustainable targets.

With development, clearly understood from the perspective articulated above, the merger of the UK’s DFID as a source of “development assistance” may well be a source of bureaucratic turf-wars within the UK government. Such will be of minor importance to recipient, developing countries which approach the terms and conditions of aid, if primarily they contribute to resolving structures of systemic underdevelopment, poverty and inequality. [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 July 2020]

Photo: Johnson visited the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma on 13 September 2020. Source: Wikimedia Commons

IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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