Comment: Decision time for DfID’s future

Don’t be fooled by the apparent lack of debate on international development policy – the parties face tough choices as the 2010 general election nears.

By Sarah Mulley

In stark contrast with current debates about the economy and public spending, it sometimes feels like there is a very cosy cross-party consensus on international development. All three main parties are signed up to meeting the UN target of giving 0.7% of GDP as aid, and initiatives to fund basic education and healthcare in the world’s poorest countries look increasingly like ‘motherhood and apple pie’ issues in the election.

But behind this apparent agreement lurk two difficult, and related, issues on which there are significant differences of approach: whether the UK is doing enough, beyond aid, to ensure that wider economic, foreign and security policy promotes development; and how the Department for International Development (DfID) should work in countries like Afghanistan where the UK has significant security, strategic or commercial interests, as well as development concerns.

Cutting across both are the implications of a rapidly changing fiscal and political situation. A massive squeeze on public expenditure and a possible change of government will define the next five years of UK development policy.

DfID has had good reasons in the past to hold itself slightly apart from the rest of government as it worked to establish an international development policy distinct from the UK’s commercial and strategic interests. The success of this approach is clear in DfID’s enviable international reputation as one of the most effective and poverty-focused donors. However, the very independence that DfID has (rightly) worked so hard to establish also makes it harder for the department to engage effectively with the rest of Whitehall on wider UK policy, and for the government to work in a joined-up way in situations where it has multiple objectives.

A new report from IPPR (supported by World Vision UK), to be published next week, shows that development outcomes depend crucially on factors beyond aid, and that UK policies across a range of areas (including climate change, migration, trade, conflict and corruption) matter hugely for poverty reduction. On the other side, UK interests are increasingly bound up with successfully responding to a range of international issues (such as climate change).

Our report shows that, while the UK has made significant progress in achieving coherence between development and other objectives in some areas of policy (eg trade), tensions remain unresolved (and, to a large extent, unspoken) in a range of areas (eg migration). The key challenge facing government in the coming years is how to manage those tensions in a productive way, and ensure that the development perspective is represented properly in decision-making across government.

In this context, there are different views on the question of ‘where next?’ for DfID. Some argue that, faced with increasing fiscal and political pressures in the coming years, DfID should defend its ‘separateness’ and independence even more; others that the changing nature of poverty requires a more joined-up approach across government. Some even argue that DfID should be merged back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The stated position of the Conservative party is that a Conservative government would keep DfID as a separate department, but this view is not universally shared within the party, and the frontbench team have sent strong signals that they would like DfID’s role to be more clearly supportive of the FCO.

Much of the debate has focused on how DfID operates in countries where the UK is at war, and Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. These situations, while very important politically, represent only a small part of what DfID does – it would be a mistake to reconfigure DfID’s entire approach on the basis of the demands of these particular cases.

Our report argues that the debate about DfID’s position should not be reduced to a choice between defending DfID’s current ways of working and merging it with the FCO. We argue that the benefits of a strong DfID, independent of the FCO, clearly outweigh the costs. However, this does not mean that DfID should stand apart from the rest of government. It is important both for UK development policy, and for DfID as a department, that the coherence of government policy and practice deepens and becomes more systematic – this is the real challenge facing UK development policy in the coming years.

The general election could prove to be a defining moment for UK policy on international development. The world is changing, and DfID must too, but this should build on the successes of the last decade – let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Sarah Mulley is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. The IPPR’s report Policy Coherence and the Future of the UK’s International Development Agenda is published on March 5th

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