Foreign Office shake-up provokes fears of waning UK influence abroad

As Department for International Development is absorbed, era of diminished British 'soft power' could ensue

Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office has for years been at the back of the queue when resources were allotted to ministerial departments.

Critics have said that relatively sparse resources at the disposal of its leadership have hampered efforts to represent Britain abroad.

That is about to change next month when the Foreign Office merges with the Department for International Development to enable it to wield considerable power on the international stage.

The £14 billion (Dh57.77bn/$15.73bn) commanded by the latter is far in excess of the slightly more than £2bn overseen by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

The shake-up is designed to ensure that with political direction to fulfil Britain’s foreign policy aims, the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will be a significant power broker.

epa08606705 A handout photo made available by the Royal Air Force of a Royal Air Force C-17 aircraft, at Beirut International Airport, Lebanon, 15 August 2020 (made available 16 August 2020).Following the UK?s continued support to disaster relief operations in Beirut, an RAF C-17 carrying cold storage containers departed Brize Norton and arrived in Beirut on Saturday. The cold storage containers, which can be used to store medical supplies, have been provided to the Lebanese Armed Forces who are facilitating the disaster relief response.  EPA-EFE/Cpl Will Drummee RAF HANDOUT CROWN COPYRIGHT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES *** Local Caption *** 56277645

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been unequivocal in why he wants the merger.

“If ‘Global Britain’ is going to achieve its full and massive potential then we must bring back Dfid to the FCO," Mr Johnson said last year.

"We can’t keep spending huge sums of British taxpayers’ money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO.

“UK aid will be given new prominence within our ambitious international policy.

"The Foreign Secretary will be empowered to make decisions on aid spending in line with the UK’s priorities overseas.”

In the turmoil of Brexit, trade deal talks and the Covid-19 pandemic, next month's merger has been largely overlooked and little discussed.

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UK aid will be given new prominence within our ambitious international policy

Unlocking new resources for wider security or political objectives is on the agenda.

One advantage seen by Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of Parliament's Defence Select Committee, is that aid to countries will be “conditional”.

That might cut down on the millions spent in places such as Libya and Afghanistan “with little effect on the economic prospects of those countries”.

The billions Britain spends on aid already means significant influence within international organisations such as the UN, said Mr Ellwood, a former defence and foreign office minister.

But that does not always resonate at home, he said.

“The budget speaks volumes in terms of our soft power and that is not entirely appreciated by the British population because we don’t see it,” Mr Ellwood said.

The aid budget has tremendous reach in the developing world and is respected because “the homework has been done on how we spend our money, which is respected by our friends and allies who row in behind us", he said.

 

The Department of International Development is a largely independent player that operates outside Whitehall politics, and is often referred to as “an NGO masquerading as a government department”.

It was created under Tony Blair in the late 1990s to separate aid from politics, mainly after the scandal over the Pergau dam in Malaysia, where development cash for its construction was given in return for a lucrative arms deal.

A blow to Britain's reputation

Those who have worked at the department say its “incredible reputation abroad” could well be lost if it is subsumed by the Foreign Office.

“This is a really valuable soft power asset for Britain,” said Laura Round, a former special adviser to the department’s former secretary of state, Penny Mordaunt.

“Not only does the UK have the third-largest development budget in the world, it also has a wealth of expertise, from education to health care and climate change, that needs to be protected.”

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(Dfid) is a really valuable soft power asset for Britain

“But if the new department makes it clear that alleviating poverty and development goals remains at the heart of the new department, there should be no loss of soft power.”

Others do not believe that the benefits of soft power have been properly scrutinised within the ministries, and even the Ministry of Defence.

“They individually bring skills and aid that strengthens the bond between Britain and the state we are dealing with,” Mr Ellwood said.

“That then requires cognitive thinking as to how you go about taking advantage of a significant aid budget and the soft power that brings.”

In countries such as Afghanistan, all three departments learnt to work effectively together and were able to bring a degree of stability with each maintaining independence.

The department’s main focus is on health and disaster relief, and it delivers most of its aid to Nigeria, South Sudan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Syria.

 

Mr Ellwood said a “nationalistic foreign policy element” could cloud what “Dfid has achieved in the past".

“If we make sure the ethos of Dfid really comes through in this new merger, it could and should work,” he said.

There are also worries that the somewhat liberal elements in the department might clash with the more traditional bureaucrats found in the Foreign Office, and that could lead to a brain drain.

“Dfid is home to some of Whitehall’s best civil servants,” Ms Round, who is now with the public relations firm Freuds, said.

“What sets them apart is not just their expertise, it is their passion for their work.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: Conservative politician Tobias Ellwood arrives at Downing Street on August 28, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has written to Cabinet colleagues telling them that his government has requested the Queen suspend parliament for longer than the usual conference season. Parliament will return for a new session with a Queen's Speech on 14 October 2019. Some Remain supporting MPs believe this move to be a ploy to hinder legislation preventing a No Deal Brexit. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

She also believes the Foreign Office could help convene major events with development and aid goals in mind.

“This could prove to be a significant boost to UK foreign policy,” Ms Round said.

Will Britain lose its soft touch?

The soft power reputation could be lost swiftly if British diplomacy and business become the priority, as it arguably did for the departments in Australia and Canada when they merged.

Nadine Haddad, of World Vision in Australia, said her country had lost diplomatic and soft power influence after a merger that led to more private-sector use in aid with less accountability.

“Aid is part of the UK DNA and it is the birthplace of world-leading institutions,” Ms Haddad told an online seminar held by the Big Tent think tank.

Ms Round said Britain’s transparency in its programmes had enhanced the Department for International Development's reputation.

“The new foreign office will only continue to benefit from the ability to amplify the UK’s international standing if it recognises these advantages and nurtures them,” she said.

The desire to continue aid to impoverished countries is held dear by some in the Conservative Party, including Harriett Baldwin, who held ministerial posts at both the merger partners.

During a parliamentary debate she requested that Mr Raab ensured at least half of the budget was spent on the poorest countries and those suffering most from conflict.

Ms Baldwin is among several who have called for a parliamentary committee to scrutinise how aid money will now be spent.

Commentators have said it is vital that the new department is given a coherent mission, although with its formation just a few weeks off, that has yet to materialise.

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