Thoughts on the demise of DFID – a governance adviser’s perspective

By Graham Teskey

The only thing that surprised DFID staff regarding its recent absorption into the FCO was the timing of the decision. With Covid-19 at something of a global peak staff perhaps expected a temporary reprieve.  Still, a crisis is always a good time to bury bad news.

So DFID lasted 23 years. I was in DFID’s Victoria Street London office the morning after Labour’s stunning election victory in May 1997 (and yes, I was “up for Portillo”). The newly appointed Secretary of State for International Development (itself a first) was Clare Short. Her first words were both a challenge and a spur.  “You will see we have changed your name. You are no longer the Overseas Development Administration. Everything about that says what’s wrong with you. I don’t doubt you’re very good at running projects. It’s just that running projects all over the place doesn’t change the fundamentals.” For me, a governance adviser, this meant she wanted to change the rules of the game. Clare Short wanted to end the ODA project factory; she wanted the department to promote development, not build endless projects.

The question now is whether DFID will revert to its historical project factory role. Will its take-over by the FCO (let us not kid ourselves) mirror that of AusAID’s take over by DFAT in 2013? I think probably not.  DFID has approximately 800 technical specialists – almost one third of its total organisational strength. Such a number cannot be ignored, sidelined or summarily sacked as many were in DFAT. DFID retains a global reputation. Whatever the prevailing political climate in the UK, it will be perverse for HMG to wish to undermine this. And there is the small matter of the 2002 International Development Act which mandates 0.7% of GNI to be spent on poverty reduction. Unless this is repealed, it is the law. (That said, as my colleague Dr Neil McCulloch, Director of the Policy Practice in the UK, and ex senior economist with AusAID in Jakarta, points out, the Act permits the target to be missed “on exceptional” grounds, as long as a statement to this effect is tabled in Parliament).

I have had conversations over the last week with friends and DFID colleagues, most of whom, like me, have a governance background. Governance advisers in DFID are now in something of an invidious position. Temperamentally we are closer to foreign affairs colleagues than others working in development: we both start from the position that politics matters for development. This makes things simultaneously easier and harder for governance advisers:  easier because foreign affairs colleagues know full well that politics matters –  they are taken aback at the historical resistance to engaging deeply with political issues on the development side; and harder because foreign affairs colleagues doubt they have much to learn from us (after all they have been doing politics for years). Contrast this with say public health specialists or NR advisers where they readily admit they have something to learn.

This raises the question of the complementarity of our skills. Governance advisers in development agencies tend to look at politics structurally: how the political substructure affects elite formation, the political settlement and the social contract. We look at so-called ‘deep structures’ and the underpinning institutions that influence if not determine individual and collective behaviour. Foreign Affairs colleagues focus more on the immediate here and now of who is doing what with (and to) whom and to what end. Foreign affairs staff tend to be more focused on individuals – the powers that be and their networks. This is the difference between high politics and low politics. With all we have learned from the New Institutional Economics regarding the interplay of agency, structure  and institutions, both perspectives are necessary. Foreign affairs colleagues engage daily in politics – talking, briefing, cajoling, persuading, looking out for informants. Governance advisers tend to do the opposite. The diagram below summarises our different, complementary perspectives.

Ex-DFID colleagues in the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO – no slinky acronym that) will need to find a language which aligns these two perspectives in a productive and intuitive manner.

Five things I will be watching closely

First, what will be the precise nature of the ‘merger’? Malcom Chalmers, a respected commentator at the Royal United Services Institute, wrote on the day of the announcement “In contrast to previous Conservative governments, which retained a separate Overseas Development Administration as a separate agency within the FCO, this government has decided to create a fully integrated FCDO structure. There will be no development minister in Cabinet, where the foreign secretary will lead on development issues. There will be no permanent secretary for international development”[1] (my emphasis). If this is the case, then based on DFAT’s experience this will consume a huge amount of time and effort.

Second – and probably more importantly – who will get all the head of department jobs? If geographic departments are merged, who gets to lead? And what will happen to SCS heads of departments who lose out in the process? If nothing else, a built-in disaffected group of senior staff could be immediately created.

Third, will DFID’s rigorous and robust selection, design, appraisal, implementation, learning and review processes be watered down? Those close to DFID are aware of what Andrew Natsios, one time director of USAID called ‘the results frenzy’[2], and how the Business Case process got out of hand, to the point that funding decisions were taking years rather than months. And yet. The UK’s development program cannot be allowed to deteriorate to a glorified ‘head of mission gift scheme’, funding transactional projects designed to curry favour rather then addressing binding development constraints. Spending aid funds badly is easy. Investing development assistance wisely is hard.

Fourth, what will happen to locally engaged staff? This was the most egregious mistake made by DFAT in 2013. Management and oversight responsibilities were removed from local staff literally overnight. Many with decades of service were downgraded and required to take pay cuts as AusAID staff were shoe-horned into DFAT pay scales. Of course many left – taking knowledge, contacts and access with them – usually to other development agencies. FCDO must avoid this at all costs.

Finally,  what will happen to the role of evidence, research and learning? DFID has a large centralised ‘Research and Evidence Department’(RED). I had the privilege of heading it up just before I left DFID in 2009. My boss was Professor Chris Witty, now the UK’s Chief Medical Officer. That itself is a measure of just how seriously DFID takes research, evidence and learning. What happens to RED in the next few months will be telling.

[1] ‘Farewell Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Welcome Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’, 16th June RUSI

[2] ‘The Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy and Development’. Center for Global Development. Andrew Natsios July 2010

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on the demise of DFID – a governance adviser’s perspective

  1. Pingback: Links I Liked - From Poverty to Power

  2. MS

    An interesting read. But to refresh your memory, these things are lead from the top. When Clare Short was appointed she insisted that Staff Appointed In Country could not progress beyond a certain grade, a colour bar in effect. The HR policies of the Department were not her remit as there’s a clear division of labour between the civil service and ministers. But did the Senior Civil Servants show loyalty to their junior staff? No they did not and let it stand. Probably why that legacy is still with us considering the lack of BAME staff representation in the higher reaches of DFID management. You expect too much of the SCS to actually protect the DFID agenda.


  3. M Siddiqui

    Senior Civil Servants role in the Government is to deliver Ministerial decisions. The SCS’s role is different to non SCS staff who will be more development orientated. Given this Government’s focus on international trade and a more pronounced focus on national interest who do you think will champion the development agenda, where will the pressure come from to maintain it at it’s current standing? Your assessment of the different focus of governance between the FCO and DFID rings true, and you assert that this is a takeover, then the junior department’s standing surely necessitates a diminishment of it’s agenda?


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