Aid is a rare area where even international observers think the UK’s approach is world-beating. Since 1997, the Department for International Development (DFID) has made the UK a development superpower, setting standards and shaping the policy agenda as global poverty has started to come down.
This gives our ambassadors and ministers precious credibility in developing countries and western capitals alike, as well as improving the prospects that we all succeed in a world less fragile.
No system is perfect though. When I was at Number 10 during the Arab Spring we asked DFID to give the prime minister options to support Arab countries and tackle future migration and terrorism problems at root. DFID went to great lengths to avoid this, to protect the focus on more distant, poorer countries.
Since then, efforts to align development with security, migration and conflict goals have spawned a rigid bureaucracy. Too often, DFID has been defensive and reluctant to play well with others in government.
But merging DFID into the Foreign Office risks squandering and vandalizing the national asset, not unleashing it, and at a time when the pandemic will push at least 60 million people into extreme poverty.
Fig-leaf thin on detail
The announcement has all the hallmarks of a political gesture in a difficult week. It is fig-leaf thin on detail. It looks like the work on people, policy and spending has been left for others to do later. It is bizarre this decision has emerged - in the name of coherence - just as the government is midway into an integrated review of international policy.
In the short-term, this suggests changes to aid programmes will be slight. The main impact will be to dent our international reputation and consume the civil service with another game of musical chairs.
Nor is it clear the move will vastly strengthen central control over policy as some suggest. In fact, over time we may see a new ‘foreign secretary fiefdom’ in place of the close relationship that four previous prime ministers enjoyed with DFID. Even after the merger, trade policy - the most significant power regained after Brexit - will still be run by a separate department.
But longer term, there is at least a 70% chance we will end up with the worst of Foreign Office (FCO) short-termism, status-quo-ism and process-focus, plus the worst of DFID bureaucracy and political caution. Without political leadership that’s just bureaucratic gravity.
But there is a more hopeful possibility - a 30% chance we get the best of DFID’s long-term transformational ambition and delivery skill, married to the best of FCO’s political agility.
What will make the difference is political leadership. On aid, as across the international agenda, the UK is in urgent need of a coherent approach in a COVID-19 and Brexit world.
Whitehall will align to a clear political lead, whatever the organisational wiring. Without it, no amount of bureaucratic re-engineering will be enough. It needs a clear vision of what kind of world Britain can do best in over the next generation, what national power we hold - from aid to universities to innovators - and what alliances we nurture.
That means foreign policy as more than a series of spasms in response to the media cycle. It means transformational diplomacy that uses our national power for generational change overseas. It means making Britain the go-to country contending for global collaboration not fragmentation, and the superpower of human capital for the vast aspirational generation coming of age in the emerging economies.
The departmental merger is a distraction which makes that task harder. But - wherever the Whitehall name plates end up - with consistent, strategic leadership, the UK can remain a development superpower that can both rally a global response to the pandemic as well as marshal national assets to further both our values and our interests.