FCDO: The New Department for Global Britain and an Opportunity for the OTs

By Craig Brewin, craig.brewin@fotbot.org

The 1st September 2020 was the day that the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office was launched. It’s far too early to say whether the merger of FCO and DFID will work better than its unfortunate new acronym. Like many of these things its success will depend on whether there is any sort of shared strategic vision, or enough high-quality project managers, to see it through. The new interim senior management team looks impressive, even if it does look a little short of ex-DFID staff.

One of Dominic Raab’s first acts in his new role as the FCDO Minister was to announce a review of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, presumably to ensure that it fully understands FCDO’s new role and its criteria for determining aid effectiveness. The merger is after all, unashamedly about the use of aid, and in announcing the review Raab said he wants the ICAI to help “relentlessly focus our Global Britain strategy.”

Maybe it is a coincidence that the ICAI criticized the FCO for the delivery of its aid programme earlier this year. It is, said the ICAI, “well off the required standard” with “weaknesses around transparency, programme management, results, systems and learning.” The Raab review will be published later in the year and the ICAI is due publish a report of its own around the same time, which is meant to be looking at how effectively the UK achieves is 0.7% of GDP aid target. Watch this space, as the Commission’s reports are always inciteful and this could be the last under their current methodology.

Not a lot has been said about the Overseas Territories but we do now have a situation where FCO and DFID staff in the aid dependent territories will now form a single team. This creates a situation where the representative of the donor agency, and the head of the recipient organisation, are the same person. This will need some explanation and some reassurance that the Governors haven’t now become too powerful. FCDO should probably also explain how it works in Westminster too. Both DFID and FCO had their own Overseas Territories Branches, and these will be merging.

Within FCDO there will be no identifiable separate overseas development function, which should mean that funding for the OTs, both capital and revenue, will sit under a single FCDO Overseas Territories Directorate. This brings us close to the dedicated OT development fund and department that the Foreign Affairs Committee appeared to support last year. It would be a great thing for FCDO to announce with gusto once they have ironed out the detail.

The change, even if just a byproduct of something bigger, will also mitigate some of the articulated concerns about FCO’s role in the past. As George Fergusson, the former Governor of Bermuda has said: “Administrative and legal responsibility for British Territories is a very different type of responsibility from the FCO’s diplomatic and consular core functions. If the FCO were a company with such a misfitting unit, it would consider selling or de-merging”.

There is also the potential to fix the issue of DFID being more passive in relation to social issues in the OTs than it is elsewhere. This has probably been to avoid interfering in the delicate power balance between local and British law makers, but DFID has not been as strong on some of these issues globally as you would think either. A recent ICAI report said DFID is particularly weak at working with civil society and “should do more to encourage civil society led innovation”.

Also, its position on disability does not live up to the rhetoric when it comes to the OTs, none of which are signed up to the UN Convention on Disability Rights. A couple of years ago DFID produced a report saying that, despite the big public pronouncements, “work on disability inclusion is still a relatively new agenda for the Department, and …there is limited experience and expertise available for the organization to draw upon. ”

But let’s not get too excited too soon. It would be useful if the new arrangements were discussed with the OTs collectively at the next JMC, as well as the whole principle of aid led by British interests. Surely an aid programme focused on Global Britain means a higher priority given to the Overseas Territories. Doesn’t it?