Whitehall sign outside Downing Street

Have DFID’s priorities changed as a result of Covid-19?

The secretary of state for international development, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, recently outlined the Department for International Development’s (DFID) approach and priorities to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here is what we learned from the International Development Committee (IDC) session.

DFID’s priorities during the pandemic

The Covid-19 crisis threatens to undo 30 years of progress towards ending extreme poverty. The risks, the secretary of state said, were threefold: health, humanitarian and economic crises.

Though the humanitarian picture looks bleak, the secretary of state said the UK is at the forefront of the global response, collaborating with international partners through the G7, G20 and other global networks.

Trevelyan also explained that this was a whole-government effort with a whole-of-mission approach in countries of operation, with DFID and FCO staff refocusing all efforts on the Covid-19 response.

Despite the urgent need to reprioritise work towards the response, DFID’s key priorities remain:

  • to stand up for the right of every girl in the world to have 12 years of quality education
  • to rid the world of extreme poverty
  • to end the preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children by 2030.

Because of the pandemic, there is now less access to people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups. Despite this, the secretary of state reiterated that DFID staff remained focused on this issue and were adapting to the conditions.

The impact on DFID programmes

Covid-19 has had an impact on DFID’s ability to deliver programmes around the world. 75% of DFID in-country staff have returned to the UK, meaning that some programmes can no longer be delivered.

The secretary of state said she understood that some NGOs are being challenged by the restrictions Covid-19 has brought, and that DFID is monitoring the impact on organisations. At present, DFID is trying to understand which operational programmes can still deliver at the pace and scale they originally expected.

Bond’s recent survey of member CEOs found that 53% of respondents have already or are planning to cut programmes. To support NGOs to respond to the pandemic around the world, we believe that DFID should explore new funding mechanisms, including a stabilisation fund, to allow NGOs, both small and large, to continue to deliver their life-saving work around the globe.

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A cross-government approach to tackling Covid-19

The secretary of state felt the crisis provided an opportunity to strengthen Whitehall governance and look into principles like value for money and coherence across government, and to challenge outdated norms. The crisis is demonstrating the benefits of a joined-up approach, enabling all government departments to work together to tackle the virus.

When questioned about DFID remaining an independent department, the secretary of state said she would “require some persuading” regarding the merits of merging DFID with the FCO.

She saw the value in having two separate departments, each with its own secretary of state, because it strengthens UK global leadership and builds respect, and ultimately makes the UK better able to reduce global poverty.

Bond welcomes this sentiment from the secretary of state. Given its expertise and experience, an independent DFID with cabinet-level representation is the best way to ensure the government delivers on its commitments to the world’s poorest and continues to be a force for good in the world.

It is more important than ever that the UK demonstrates the global leadership required to tackle this virus head on and build more effective aid once the pandemic is under control.

Upcoming government processes

The Integrated Review of Defence, Diplomacy and Development will be restarted in the autumn, but this may change due to the pandemic.

The secretary of state confirmed that poverty reduction will be at the core of the new aid strategy but said that this can be achieved in many different ways. Although utilising the expertise of other government departments (OGDs) is important, OGD spending would benefit from more ministerial oversight. This is an area the secretary of state will be looking at in the coming months.

Bond believes the government should use the Integrated Review process to position the UK as a country that uses its global influence to:

  • target poverty and inequality in all its forms
  • push for decisive action on both climate and nature emergencies
  • strengthen and defend international rules and norms and ensure they work for the public interest in all countries
  • promote peacebuilding and humanitarian principles in response to conflict and global crises
  • strengthen democratic and public accountability at all levels of defence, diplomacy, and development.

The Integrated Review and the new aid strategy need to complement other government processes, such as the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). These processes need to be open, deliberative and include meaningful engagement with civil society organisations engaged in delivering development work from the beginning and throughout.