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Could joined-up government be the approach that development needs?

6th August 2018

Paul Wafer was DFID’s Chief of Staff for Africa from 2015–2017. He’s now our Director of Development Impact where he is working to ensure the insight and learning from our projects are used to secure even better outcomes for the people we work with. Here he reflects on why the new joint Ministerial portfolios in the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office might just be a good idea…

Stock photo of Westminster building
Photo: creative commons -Flickr

Alarm bells have been ringing at the news that Ministers of State have been appointed with joint Department for International Development (DFID)and Foreign Office (FCO) portfolios; with the Independent arguing that this signals progress in Boris Johnson’s campaign to take over the development budget. The wider question of whether DFID faces ‘re-absorption’ back into the Foreign Office, 20 years after its creation as a separate department, makes a lot of people in the development sector understandably nervous. Yet this particular move makes sense.

Examples of HMG incoherence abroad are not uncommon — most people in both the FCO and DFID can probably cite their own favourites. Mine was in Zimbabwe when I worked there for DFID in the 2000s, early on in that country’s slide toward disaster. While DFID was working to find ways to shore up a failing health system hampered by the mass exodus of qualified health workers (work that is still ongoing, all these years later, with Crown Agents’ support), the Foreign Office regularly hosted teams that were actively recruiting those same health workers to emigrate and fill vacancies in the NHS.

The idea of ‘joined-up government’ is hardly new but it’s still talked about a lot — both in domestic UK policy circles and as a factor building more capable developing states. UK ministers with remits for Africa and the Middle East holding dual portfolios is a pragmatic move towards joined up government or ‘One HMG’. There are good reasons to welcome it:

  • It provides scope for clearer messages from Whitehall to FCO Posts and DFID offices in-country and a more coherent UK narrative about what matters in the bilateral relationship with the host country.
  • It can help to streamline resources and reduce duplication — enabling better targeting of advice and effort by officials.
  • It actually reinforces the sort of join-up that those heading up the DFID and FCO teams on the ground are usually trying to bring about anyway, often in spite of conflicting and perverse incentives that originate in Whitehall.

In Africa, where Rory Stewart will be the joint UK minister, this matters for a whole series of priority objectives. On anti-corruption, for example, where there might be community level accountability initiatives sponsored by DFID, FCO-led dialogue with UK extractives companies operating in the country, and asset recovery that involves the National Crime Agency, having a holistic complementary package all reporting in to one minister makes the UK a much more effective partner to those on the continent trying to tackle this issue. Similar combinations apply in areas like countering violent extremism in the North East of Nigeria, or offering valuable multi-faceted support to the refugee hosting countries in the Horn (Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya).

People in the sector are jittery given all the speculation around DFID’s survival and the fact that the Conservative manifesto wasn’t explicit in committing to keep DFID as a separate department, but so far there are a couple of elements that feel reassuring:

  • DFID has retained a Cabinet level minister, with separate accounting responsibility to Treasury and an important separate seat at the National Security Council alongside the Foreign Secretary
  • All of the main parties retained the strong commitment of 0.7 in the manifestos their MPs have been elected on

Real issues to watch are the proposed re-negotiation of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and who gets appointed as the new DFID Permanent Secretary. It will also be interesting to see whether DFID retains some responsibility for things like the International Aid Transparency Initiative transparency commitments across the whole ODA budget, whichever department is spending the money. It will also really matter how the joint ministerial private offices are set up and whether other parts of the system treat them properly as ‘joint’: how will the FCO’s and DFID’s respective Africa Directors now change their ways of working? For now this arrangement provides an opportunity to make development progress and secure greater UK policy coherence in Africa and the Middle East with this arrangement — let’s give it a chance…