‘Uniting aid with foreign policy’, Prime Minister Boris Johnson just stated, as he unveiled the new merging of the Department for International Development (DfiD) with the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO).
What does this mean in practice for a place like Iraq, which has in recent years, and especially since 2003, received enormous amounts of assistance. I state my thoughts below.
Development assistance will now become politicised, associated more closely with the promotion of British foreign policy.
Aid and development have always been political pursuits, but now, with the new proposed arrangement, development will be under the strict direction of country ambassadors and FCO decision-makers.
This is a massive demotion of DfiD expertise and people, subsumed now under the weight of the UK’s trade priorities and undermines international development work.
In Iraq, development assistance, at least in recent years, has focused on priorities concerning international development agendas, rather than only the UK’s foreign agendas.
With the new changes, this means that development assistance will now be determined by the agendas of UK foreign policy, namely, in a post-Brexit context, trade and business.
This isn’t good news for the UK.
It provides less space for the negotiation for the preparation and tailoring of projects and interventions to address challenges in countries enduring poverty and conflict.
In Iraq, it means that development assistance will increasingly be viewed as an extension of British politics abroad.
Less room for manoeuvre and negotiation of relationships
If the UK had poor relations with a country, development assistance was another form of ensuring the continuation of partnerships and activities. It was an essential way in which communication could continue even if politics between countries was weakened by poor diplomatic relations. Now that room for manoeuvre is restricted with the merging of the two departments.
The focus now is on trade but trade is itself built on cultural relations and amicable ties between countries. If the focus is purely on trade issues, the UK will lose much more than trade. It loses the relationships it has forged over the past few decades and the cultural relationships that define the UK abroad.
The ramifications, which will only unfold over many years, are grave and restrict the UK’s cultural diplomacy and more importantly, the relationship countries and societies have between each other outside formal diplomatic channels.
Another problem that will most likely emerge is that development actors – universities, NGOs, researchers, etc and their beneficiaries and partners in other countries – will be viewed as part of the politics of British foreign policy.
If British foreign policy is dented by those in power, by the particular politics of the day, then it may actually very well harm – by association – those who work in development.
It will become harder now to state a semblance of independence from the politics of the state as promoted by FCO.
Like it or not, those working in development will now become formally part of the politics of the FCO.
In Iraq, as it is the case in other parts of the Middle East, funding is a hugely sensitive issue. Any one who works on a foreign funded project is asked ‘who are you funded by’.
There is no doubt that development is political, but there are degrees of politics and degrees of independence. The merger creates less space for negotiating these relationships and will most probably affect the ability to be independent from British government policy and those objectives tied to each successive government.
As development assistance will now be determined by short-term politics, each successful government will use international development for the promotion of its policies.
In terms of practice, this means there will be lots of stop-go projects and no real continuity and sustainability in essential development work.