UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds his first Cabinet meeting since his reshuffle in the Cabinet Room
" UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds his first Cabinet meeting since his reshuffle in the Cabinet Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Reshuffles, reviews and restructures: what does the new government mean for development?

Two weeks ago, the development sector waited with trepidation as prime minister Boris Johnson announced his cabinet reshuffle.

For months, media stories intimated that the Department for International Development (DfID) was to be merged with, or subsumed into, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – a move Bond and its members oppose.

How much of a priority would poverty reduction be if DfID was merged with the FCO? If the foreign secretary oversaw the aid budget, would it really be used to tackle the climate crisis over and above British companies’ interests?

Then the news came in: former defence minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan was appointed as secretary of state for international development. Many of us breathed a sigh of relief that DfID, one of the world’s most respected development agencies, had retained its independence and its cabinet-level representation.

Policy coherence or confusion?

The reshuffle also increased the number of DfID junior ministers, from four to an unprecedented seven, all with joint portfolios with the FCO. Joint portfolios are not necessarily a bad thing: the development sector has long advocated for policy coherence across all aspects of foreign policy, to avoid one government department undermining another’s efforts.

But what are the consequences for development when seven junior ministers report to two secretaries of state? Policy coherence or confusion? We will have to wait and see. It is also too early to say what the new secretary of state’s own agenda will be. But, as is the tradition, we hope to hear from her directly at the Bond conference in March.

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Does this mean things are settling down towards the status quo in the development space? No. An Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and development has been launched by the Cabinet Office, reporting through the National Security Agency (NSA) to the prime minister.

Again, nothing wrong with more policy coherence across the portfolio of UK interventions overseas. However, yesterday’s statement worryingly doesn’t mention meaningful attempts to combat global poverty and make life better for the world’s poorest. It will be important to ensure the Integrated Review is informed by those civil society actors working to address the world’s challenges, as well as from vulnerable and marginalised communities themselves.

Aid is in the national interest

Bond, its members and indeed the law, are clear. The primary focus of the aid budget must continue to be on reducing poverty globally. The Conservative manifesto has some clear commitments on issues such as preventable deaths, girls’ education globally and supporting marginalised groups.

These are the right kind of issues for the aid budget to focus on. However, is there a danger that this focus is being distorted by an overt rhetoric around British self-interest? Already just under a third of the UK aid budget is spent by departments other than DfID. Spending by other departments has had poor results in helping the world’s poorest and has been done with little transparency, according to the government’s independent watchdogs ICAI and the IDC. The risk is driving the aid budget towards more explicit promotion of UK interests will undermine its effectiveness in solving the world’s most pressing challenges.

Fortunately, the UK aid programme already supports the national interest with much of DfID’s work focused on building a healthier, safer and a more prosperous world for us all. Which is a benefit for Britain too.

The UK’s opportunity to lead on the global stage

For several years we have heard the government talk about a “global Britain” – an outward-facing nation, ready to work with others to retain a role on the global stage. Now is the chance for the government to show it is an optimistic, compassionate and effective global player committed to delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals, which it was pivotal in establishing.

This year, the UK will host two major global moments: the replenishment of Gavi – the vaccine alliance responsible for fighting some of the deadliest diseases in the world – and the COP26, the UN conference to tackle the climate crisis. These are opportunities for the government to put its rhetoric into practice by showing UK leadership, supporting vaccinations for those who need it most, and acting decisively to protect us all from the well-documented catastrophe of climate change.

So Bond and its members will be pushing for a genuine and inclusive look at the challenges of development, defence and diplomacy. More policy coherence is important, but it is also crucial to remember that DfID is a globally respected development powerhouse, partly because of the political leadership from the UK government in tackling the world’s challenges beyond our shores. If the government is serious about delivering their manifesto commitments to the world’s poorest, then a strong, independent DfID is needed to deliver this.

Don’t forget to join us for the UK’s role in development post-Brexit session at Bond Conference 2020. Taking place at QEII London on 23-24 March, you can get your tickets for the event now.