Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy
When the Department of International Development was created in 1997, it appeared as the capstone of the post cold war world order. The Berlin Wall had come down. Eastern European countries had adopted democracy. The Bosnian civil war had been brought to a negotiated conclusion, and in the Kremlin a promisingly competent young liberal Vladimir Putin had yet to take office as First Deputy Prime Minister to ailing President Boris Yeltsin. With peace and security in our neighbourhood assured, it seemed natural to move up a version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and focus on providing the world’s poorest with material help and advice, provided not out of narrow national interest but out of principle.
The International Development Act circumscribed what DfID could spend its money on. It later evolved into an instrument for meeting an international target, that rich countries would try to spend 0.7 per cent of their GDP, on activities that fitted an international definition of “Official Development Assistance”, and whose primary purpose was the alleviation of poverty (though, in practice a considerable amount has been used for state building and other security related activities through the instruments like the Conflict Security and Stability Fund).
As well as being motivated by idealism, it extended a new kind of kind of international policy-making, where countries agreed long term goals, and devised mechanisms to keep each other honest in meeting them, in an area beyond military security and the stability of the international financial system.
The years since haven’t been kind to the idealists’ hopes; 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the failure of most Arab Spring revolutions, the civil war in Syria, Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, and growing Chinese aggression in Asia, including in Hong Kong, call that noble aspiration into question.
This collapse in the international order has begun to have direct repercussions on Britain, whether it’s Russia assassinating people on British soil; Beijing threatening Hong Kongers; or even the Russian airforce penetrating British airspace, and increased submarine activity in British waters.
Donald Trump has rendered the US unpredictable at best, while Brexit has deprived Britain of its share in the EU’s commercial clout. Not only has the need for security grown greater, new means of contributing to the global public goods on which it depends need to be devised.
If done well, bringing DfID back into the Foreign Office could be part of this solution. The idea has been met with swift opposition from 100 aid NGOs. This could be thought understandable: a government department that caters specifically to them is under threat of abolition. But their worst fears: the subordination of development to narrow commercial interests (and a repeat of the Pergau Dam scandal, where aid was given to Malaysia in exchange for an arms deal), need not be realised. Rather the best parts of development policy, in particular a long-term focus and international collaboration could work, in a term I coined for William Hague more than a decade ago, for the “enlightened natural interest.”
The UK is a mid-sized power. Rankings of economic size, (like “fifth” or “sixth” largest economy) in the world, belie the huge difference size difference between US, EU, and, increasingly, China; and the rest. UK GDP is a sixth of America’s and a fifth of the EU27’s. Though the UK’s military strength is relatively greater, there are few missions these days where it would not act as part of an multilateral force, or under the auspices of NATO or Emmanuel Macron’s European Intervention Initiative.
For a mid-sized power, the enlightened national interest lies in securing the international public goods that enable it and its people to pursue their interests with relatively little disruption. These include, of course, organisations like NATO and the WTO; development assistance measured according to agreed guidelines; support for international financial institutions; and contributions to dealing with climate change and other aspects of environmental protection.
If the FCO/DfID merger is to be more than just a rebranding exercise, it should be part of a refocusing of British foreign policy on making the world safe for mid-sized powers like the post-Brexit UK by contributing to the provision of the global public goods this relies on.
The nature of this exercise is that it cannot be set out in detail in a column, but is something a government with a majority more than large enough to last a full term can afford to take the time to implement seriously. It would do well to start studying this in depth, and I can think of no-one better to lead such a review than Nick Herbert, the recently retired MP for Arundel and South Downs, who has the necessary background in development (he’s currently chairman of the Global TB Caucus) and long experience in thoughtful institutional reform.
The International Development doctrine of the 1990s was right at the time. Now is the chance to update it for our more unstable world.