Brooke Bourgeois

First World Problems | The Politics of Development Aid in Britain

Helena Roy

By June this year, the UK had surpassed 40,000 deaths from Covid-19. That same month also marked the end of a quarter in which the nation’s GDP shrunk by 20.4 percent, leaving the country firmly in the grip of a recession. At the same time, social movements percolated across the globe: Black Lives Matter protests had reached London, Birmingham, Manchester, and more UK cities following the death of George Floyd. In Bristol, a statue of a slave trader was pulled from its pedestal and thrown in the harbor.

If among these events you barely registered the merger of two acronymed departments in the British government, who could blame you? On June 16, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to merge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO, Britain’s State Department) and the Department for International Development (DfID, its foreign aid office) to create a new “super-department,” the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). The move was the most substantial reworking of British foreign aid policy in decades. Since 1997, DfID had been firewalled as a distinct department, maintaining its own budget, cabinet minister, and clear legal mandate: poverty reduction. Now, it would be demoted to a subset of Britain’s foreign policy bureaucracy. 

Edward Colton’s empty pedestal in Bristol (Caitlin Hobbs, CC BY 3.0)

Johnson pitched his decision as an overdue administrative action, calling it “an opportunity for us to get value from the huge investments that we make in overseas spending.” He cited examples of supposedly inefficient aid allocation that undervalued what he saw as Britain’s more important foreign relationships: equal amounts of aid currently go to Zambia and Ukraine, for example, “though the latter is vital to European security.” For too long, Johnson proclaimed, DfID had been treated by the rest of the world as “a cashpoint in the sky.”

Rolled out before opposition could be mobilized, the move appears to have been calculated to coincide with the distraction of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite assurances from Johnson that a “massive consultation” had taken place, Devex reported that many in the development sector were unaware of any such process. The trade union representing senior civil servants learned of the merger from the media, and were only called to a staff meeting nearly two hours after the Prime Minister’s announcement in the House of Commons. What’s more, it was revealed that the UK aid budget would be cut by £2.9 billion the day before Parliament broke for summer, leaving MPs with no opportunity to interrogate the decision. The timing was especially cold given that the pandemic was disproportionately impacting individuals along lines of race, income, and class, both in the UK and abroad. In early August, the Guardian reported that nearly half of the UK’s small charities working with the world’s poorest expect to close within the next twelve months due to lack of financial support. In September, the UN predicted that between 90 and 120 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty in the developing world as a result of the pandemic. Quietly executed at the start of September, the move ties up Britain’s foreign aid and policy staff with a messy reorganization at a time when international focus on the unequal burden of Covid-19 is essential.

The development sector, along with three of Johnson’s four predecessors, swiftly condemned the merger. But by leaning on an ideal of the compassionate global citizen in arguing for DfID’s essential existence as a standalone department, the detractors revealed a tension in British foreign affairs. No government — neither Labour nor Conservative — has yet reckoned with Britain’s colonial legacy or the unique responsibility it might have as a result. On its creation, DfID was part and parcel of the Blairite outlook — one in which global inequalities were seen as a moral failing for all. 

That ideal of global responsibility has soured across Britain, as it has in the US, in the austerity-ridden decades since Bush and Blair. Politicians now face a choice: explain directly how Britain benefits from its global development work, or drop support for DfID entirely. The former requires confronting thorny questions. What right does Britain have to decide where development funding goes in independent nations? Why is this neocolonial posture still so prevalent? Does Britain owe more than other nations in the fight against the global inequities it shaped? Should British aid be thought of not as benevolence, but reparations?

The merger of the FCO and DfID represents a continued deferral of those conversations, epitomizing a nascent post-Brexit era of British foreign policy that leans into, rather than away from, the country’s colonial past. Subsuming DfID into the FCO institutionalizes the idea that where Britain’s purely nationalistic priorities collide with development needs — namely, those of foreign countries and, frequently, ex-colonies — the UK’s aid will be mobilized for her own self-interest. The danger is that those goals are being formulated from an embryonic foreign policy animated not by Little England, nor the City of London, but the ghosts of empire.


Britain’s development policy was born an imperialist endeavor. The 1929 Colonial Development Act enshrined aid funding as a tool “for the purpose of aiding and developing agriculture and industry in the colony or territory, and thereby promoting commerce with or industry in the United Kingdom.

Left- and right-led British governments tussled over foreign aid’s relationship to diplomatic policy throughout the post-war era. In 1964, Harold Wilson’s Labour government created a ministry that united aid functions from across Whitehall under one roof, apart from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office bureaucracy. When Conservatives took power in the 1970s, this ministry was then folded back into the FCO. Returning to power in 1974, Labour again wrestled it away from the FCO’s mandate, though it remained without its own cabinet official. At the end of the decade, Thatcher took office, and “structural adjustment” (making foreign aid conditional on neoliberal market reforms) became global orthodoxy via the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The ministry was swallowed by the FCO again and remained in this position throughout Thatcher’s tenure and into Major’s.

In the early 1990s, the FCO’s troubled alloy of foreign policy and development work ruptured with the Pergau Dam scandal, a watershed moment in which it came to light that the British government had promised aid money for an ill-conceived hydroelectric dam in Malaysia, contingent on an arms deal with the Malaysian government. The cost of the undertaking ballooned nearly fourfold in the decade after the deal was first struck in 1980, ultimately totaling an estimated £238 million. Though Malaysia could produce electricity far more cheaply by other means, British companies stood to profit mightily from the arms deal — so it went ahead. With Britain’s commercial and development objectives diametrically opposed due to the dam’s astronomical cost, Tim Lankester, the Permanent Secretary overseeing aid, demanded a written directive from Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, who decided “it would have been very damaging to our commercial interests, as well as our political interests, if we started to weasel around.” Citing an informant from Balfour Beatty, a British construction firm participating in the dam project, one Labour MP claimed that British taxpayer dollars had been used to pay off local Malaysian politicians. 

The story broke in 1993, near the height of the neoliberal consensus and shortly after the end of history. Investigations followed, two select committees filed reports, and the World Development Movement (an NGO campaigning for economic justice in the Global South) brought a court case against the British government. The plaintiffs argued that because the development of the dam was uneconomical, supporting it with development funds was contrary to the law. The High Court agreed, and the government lost the case.

After his election in 1997, Tony Blair created DfID as a new standalone department with a Cabinet-level, ministerial role. In 2002, he passed the International Development Act, effectively outlawing tied aid and making “poverty reduction’’ the sole legal basis for international aid spending. Within the FCO there was substantial opposition: some ministers and diplomats ignored the split and continued to sweeten deals and lubricate foreign relations with promised aid. Clare Short, DfID’s first Secretary of State, deducted any such sums from the FCO’s limited aid budget, and they soon ceased.

Since then, governments on both sides of the political spectrum have largely left DfID alone, in part because it is hard to make a case for combining aid and foreign policy under the same roof without falling back on nationalist and imperialist arguments. And DfID, for all its faults, carved out a global reputation for engaged, evidence-based policymaking. Its employees, nearly a third of whom are technical specialists, controlled around 75 percent of the UK’s overseas development assistance budget until last month. (The FCO controlled just five percent.) While in 2018, DFID spent 62.5 percent of its country-specific aid in the least developed countries, for non-DFID aid, the proportion was 25.7 percent. Considering the merger, the International Development Select Committee reported that UK aid not administered by DfID “has a very different geographical profile, with around three quarters going to middle-income countries, including China, India and South Africa.” Stated priorities were “reducing carbon emissions, tackling insecurity, building research partnerships and promoting trade and investment ties with the UK.”

Without the institutional ring-fence constructed around DfID from its inception, there is now little to prevent the FCO from repurposing aid funding for less-than-humanitarian goals. “Poverty reduction” can be broadly defined. After all, despite its enlightened mandate DfID’s existence has always been tinged with British self-interest: the department’s anti-poverty work acted as a sort of moral cover while the Home and Foreign Offices enacted steadily more callous policies. In 2015, David Cameron announced on an official visit to Jamaica that Britain would spend £25 million of “aid money” building a prison on the island to house foreign criminals currently serving sentences in the UK. Cameron said it was “absolutely right” that foreign criminals be properly punished, but not at the expense of the “hard-working British taxpayer.” The announcement of this sensational project overshadowed a promising campaign for reparations from Britain for its role in the slave trade, led by the Caricom reparations committee and directed at Cameron by the then-Prime Minister of Jamaica herself. (When pressed, Number 10 said it understood reparations were “an issue for some people” but refused to address the question other than to dismiss the idea as “not the right approach.”) In another instance, Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy aimed at deterring illegal immigration during her tenure at the Home Office resulted in the Windrush Scandal of 2018, in which British citizens, predominantly 1940s émigrés from the Caribbean, were denied housing or medical treatment and, in some cases, deported.

Even as DfID’s achievements were rigorously tabulated, its qualitative role in aiding and abetting Britain’s global power remained amorphous, fueling the department’s reputation as a scientific force for good. Britain has been exacting in demonstrating the return on its aid in terms of poverty reduction, but it has stayed far more circumspect in auditing the returns to the national self-interest.

Tony Blair denounces the merger in a brief video


At the time of the merger’s announcement in June, the International Development Select Committee had been leading an ongoing, government-commissioned, non-partisan review of the effectiveness of UK aid, including the consequences of a potential merger, for three months. (Johnson announced the dissolution of the Committee alongside DfID.) An interim report, published just over a month before the announcement, concluded that DfID should be retained as a standalone entity, so as not to damage Britain’s international standing.

In an attempt to reframe DfID’s worth amid the nationalist pressures of a post-Brexit political climate, Tony Blair, in a three-minute video released after the merger was announced, called the department “a major and important arm of British soft power.” Before his government created DfID as a distinct department in 1997, Britain’s aid arm was “not recognized as a key global player;” it became one of the most respected post-colonial development programs in the world. In his statement, Blair edged closer to directly describing the premise of DfID than he ever did while in power. The merger is political, Blair stressed, and “has nothing to do with the true national interest.”

Saying that Britain should fund a self-contained development department for the “true national interest” is politically challenging. It requires arguing that Britain does and, more controversially, should benefit directly from the development it funds — a position inarticulable without obvious colonial overtones. The countries receiving funds from the “fantasy cash machine,” as Johnson characterized it, have predominantly Black and brown populations and are without deep reserves of wealth, often directly because of Britain’s colonial plunder. The idea that such funds should be tied to a return for Britain is an inconvenient reminder of the very-much-alive legacy of British imperialism and foundations of British power.

Blair’s New Labour avoided this debate by leaning on the idea that poverty reduction is not a British responsibility, but a global one. In 2001, Blair famously stated, “Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world.” The challenges on the continent had global solutions, and “if the world as a community focused on it, we could heal it.” It was a thesis that held significant appeal at the time. The public was ready to swallow the myth that Africa’s challenges had arisen independent of any history for which Britain might inconveniently be responsible. DfID benefitted from such a view, sitting within an international development sector that holds vestiges of power, money, and decision-making systems built along lines of race, class, and nationality. (This sector, at least in the UK, is still painfully tokenistic.) The development community adopted the idea that history was a distraction, and that fighting poverty, meant only looking forward. Aid, in turn, was designed to “make poverty history.”

This framework was one well-documented casualty of the 2008 financial crisis and its global fallout. With poverty reduction as global obligation no longer political gospel (the UN’s much-vaunted Millennium Development Goals went quietly into the night in 2015), justification for Britain’s aid spending became a lacuna. Today, disaffection with globalization is redundant to document, given the scale of its impact. We’re a long way from the optimism of 1997, a year when New Labour won a colossal electoral mandate predicated on using the energy of the present to blueprint the future. (Blair’s book-cum-manifesto, published the same year, was titled New Britain: My Vision for a Young Country.) After 2008, when the present looked too bleak to build on, Britain looked backward. The country’s best days were the ones when it had stood alone — ruling an empire, or in its “finest hour” during World War II. British exceptionalism resurged.

The Conservatives — and Johnson especially — stood primed to lead the revanchist charge. The European Union provided a convenient scapegoat for the pain of Cameron-era austerity — a liberal, outward-looking constraint on Britain’s imperial potential. Cameron bowed out the morning after the Brexit referendum, as soon as the inexorable became obvious. Four months later, at her first Conservative Party Conference as leader and Prime Minister, Theresa May stated, “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” (She is the only one of Johnson’s four predecessors who has not condemned the merger.)

In explaining away the hasty merger, Johnson took as a premise that Britain should gain in obvious terms from any aid it spends. He rushed to promise that the new super-department will secure “maximum value” for the British taxpayer. Every employee will receive “ideas and sense of mission” from DfID, “but also the understanding of the need to protect UK values, UK policies and UK interests overseas.” Defining which “values” and “interests” Johnson meant is not difficult. The emphasis on “British interests” betrays an implicit skepticism of the worth of any independent aid at all. Though Johnson has called the move a merger, he has made it crystal clear that the foreign secretary will lead the department, effectively leaving DfID with no executive advocate. 

Britain is not the first country to merge its development and foreign offices. While some have been effective — or at least not detrimental to development policy — others have not. The reasons seem to lie in the purity of the motivations (not Johnson’s strong suit). Evidence shows cabinet-level leadership on development leads to consistently better outcomes. In Denmark, for example, a cabinet position overseeing development was retained, and aid priorities seem to have remained intact. Until this year, the UK was also cited as a prime example. 

Perhaps in anticipation of calls to keep a ministerial position for development, Johnson crippled the role by appointing Anne-Marie Trevelyan — a hard-line Brexiteer with no evident interest in global development — as DfID’s minister in a February cabinet reshuffle. Johnson promised DfID’s aid budget would be preserved, but scrapped the committee that audits aid spending and assesses its efficiency. The FCO also reserves most roles for UK nationals: serving the Office’s interests apparently requires “special allegiance to the Crown.” Since the announcement, it has been reported that DfID staff moving to the FCO can continue their positions “up to any pre-agreed end dates.” After that point, unless the FCO changes its nationality requirements, many non-UK nationals working for DfID will no longer be eligible for their current roles.


It is not obvious that British career diplomats will have the experience or skills to manage multi-million dollar development programs. Good development requires expert staff living in the locales they are serving, either permanently or for long periods of time. Above all, it requires people who view development as the means and the end, and are willing to work to make their jobs irrelevant. Good diplomacy, the saying goes, is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that she looks forward to the trip. Aid cushions the seat. 

And it is telling that DfID will be annexed entirely under the FCO, and not one of the many other departments with which it shares goals, such as health or climate change. The FCO is the weaker partner in terms of transparent, effective, evidence-based development, tending to pursue expressly nationalistic interests, which have led it to mismanage its aid budget in the past. In 2018, the Aid Transparency Index — an independent assessment of the accessibility of information on aid spending and evaluation run by Publish What You Fund — ranked DfID third out of 45 major development agencies. The FCO ranked 40th and was classified “poor.” (This year it rose to 38th and “fair,” falling short of the British government’s goal to have all aid-spending departments rated “good” or “very good” by 2020.)

The merger is instead an attempt to shore up the power of the FCO, an office whose influence — especially among developing nations — faces a self-imposed decline. Since the 1990s, its operations, particularly in developing nations, have substantially decreased. In 1995, for example, there were 25 UK-based diplomatic staff members in Zambia. There are now two. Without a strong physical presence, cooperation will be difficult. Such actions communicate a low priority to the country in question, and Britain can no longer rely on its economic weight to force through extractive foreign policies. Grive Chelwa, writing in Africa is a Country, notes that exports from Africa to the UK represent about five percent of Africa’s total exports: “Africa is more worried about a slowdown in China, its biggest trading partner by far.”

Under the new plans, a single British “strategy” will be implemented by the relevant ambassador in each country. The foreign secretary will be “empowered to decide which countries receive or cease to receive British aid.” The new “super-department” was the culmination, at the highest level of government, of the idea that optimal foreign policy was an “Empire 2.0,” as Conservative Party politicians described it to The Times in 2017. It makes sense that since Johnson took office last year, the pace of policy change has quickened. In 2002, Johnson, misquoting Blair, wrote that Africa was a “blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”


If anyone in the British government cares about historical accountability, it is not the Prime Minister and his privileged compatriots in Westminster — a type at once ubiquitous inside British politics and completely bizarre outside of it. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is one of them, as is Jacob Rees-Mogg — the so-called “honourable member for the 18th century.” Johnson’s 2019 cabinet was the most privately educated for over 20 years: seven percent of Britons attend private high school, but 64 percent of Johnson’s ministers did. Cameron appointed Old Etonians as his chief of staff, his chief of policy, and the head of his policy unit.

This cohort arrived in political office to find their task was to manage a decline of something they had been taught to worship. The juxtaposition between their own lives — comfortably ensconced in a generational wealth that was equated with moral superiority — and the decline in British global dominance metastasized into a full-blown identity crisis. Faced with existential questions, many have responded by attempting to revive — top down, from the government — a period when superiority by accident of birth was celebrated, not challenged. 

Successive Conservative governments have managed to marry a popular snobbery towards anything foreign with a rose-tinted nostalgia for a benevolent Empire and a commensurately imperial FCO. To entertain these two competing positions, Johnson and others often reflexively refer back to Britain’s status as a global superpower while insisting on the country’s modernity. But government decisions like the merger also throw Britain’s historical record into sharper relief, revealing how little most modern Britons are prepared to account for their empire’s crimes. Some are particularly sensitive about the figures and events Britain most wants to reincarnate in the scramble for relevance. Winston Churchill, for instance: as his biographer, Johnson defended him to the point of assigning the removal of Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office to Obama’s “ancestral dislike of the British Empire.” (The bust was in fact a loan made by Tony Blair to George W. Bush, and was returned to the British government in 2009, as planned.) In The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain, Rees-Mogg explained that imperial figures justifiably thought it “reasonable to export” British civilization “to other countries to remove such hardships as exist there.” After rumors this summer that “Rule, Britannia!” might be performed without lyrics on the last night of the Proms (an eight-week classical music festival and centerpiece of the London summer that usually ends with a showcase of British anthems), Johnson told reporters, “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness.”

One reason New Labour did not look back to justify modern development work through a reparative lens was that much of the electorate would have disagreed. The entire curriculum of the state education system says virtually nothing about the horrors of British imperialism; history lessons often skip from the Tudors to the First World War with little mention of anything in between. By three to one, Britons think the Empire is something to be proud of. This sentiment, however, is driven by Conservative voters: over a third would like the empire to exist today, and more than half think countries are better off for having been colonized.

That trope — that Britain’s extracted wealth was a small remuneration for its superior civilization — is near-identical to the motivation behind the DfID-FCO merger today. The narrative was recycled into one of Britain’s unjust loss, over Britain’s unjust gain. At its center was the ubiquitous taxpayer — no longer exploited by Britain’s internal class system, the story went, but instead by the unearned social mobility of foreign powers Britain had historically suppressed.


In a way, the Conservatives have benefited from the asymptotic nature of Brexit’s implementation, which has appeared imminent and then receded at various points since 2016. For over four years and under three different Prime Ministers, the party has been able to define its foreign policy in opposition to European counterparts only, using the EU and internationalism of any color to deflect from punishing years of Tory austerity. From 2021 on, this will be trickier, and how the government attempts to shape Britain’s identity internationally remains to be seen. Immediately after the Brexit referendum, the government summed up its position with a purposefully vague, slightly arrogant slogan: “Global Britain.” To call this a strategy would be generous. The phrase is at once a rejection of Europe, a Singapore-on-the-Thames embrace of globalization, and a statement of British exceptionalism — in practical terms, meaningless. 

This incoherence is the inevitable byproduct of the doomed attempt to revive British imperialism as modern foreign policy. The slide of Britain from a first-tier world empire to a second-tier nuclear military power has formed the basis of a potent, reactionary political current at odds with the world in which it now operates. The cultivation of “soft power,” as Tony Blair described the work of DfID, is incompatible with the aims of a nostalgist right. Accepting neither the strategic advantages nor moral imperatives of foreign aid, Johnson and the Conservatives are redefining it in explicitly transactional terms: play ball with us diplomatically, or else.

For all DfID’s errors — and those of the history it is built on — stripping Britain’s development work back to its foundations in colonialism risks reproducing an unwanted legacy in a modern incarnation. In its best instances, DfID operated on the assumption that Britain’s national interest was served if the recipients of aid benefit by the maximum degree possible. Instead of directing British funds and support to long-term and resolutely local operations, democratically demanded by the citizens of the recipient country, there is now a real danger that DfID’s mandate will be lost and its technocratic reputation used to give a sheen of objectivity to whatever aid program most helps Britain’s foreign policy crisis of the day. 

The events of this summer have shown that Johnson’s government and policies are not, however, an unstoppable juggernaut. The murder of George Floyd spurred enormous protests, which in Britain amplified calls for curriculum reform, truth and reconciliation commissions, and the fall of colonial figureheads. (A statue of Robert Clive, the first British Governor of Bengal, stands directly outside the FCO in Whitehall. Clive’s ancestral home, Powis Castle in Wales, holds more Mughal artifacts than the National Museum in New Delhi.) This opposition has been sustained by broader public engagement with grassroots movements simmering under the conditions of institutionalized racism and classism that span Britain’s political spectrum. Politically, Keir Starmer’s Labour has proved more willing to broach these subjects. The “eradication of structural racism,” Starmer has said, “will be a defining cause for the next Labour government.” 

But Starmer’s first party conference speech as leader of Labour was temporally Blairite. No reference was made to his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, whose opposition was decimated by Johnson in the 2019 election. Instead, Starmer lauded Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and Blair. The message from these leaders, he said, was “don’t look back, look to the future.” How Labour plans to account for Britain’s imperial history from this standpoint is as unclear as it was in 1997. And how palatable that message will be on a post-Covid electoral stage — where a growing demand to reckon with the empire’s legacy sits alongside a refusal to acknowledge it as morally wrong — is as opaque. The national identity crisis in Britain today is the result of a learned imperial nostalgia that is pathetic at best, racist at worst. Britain has been loathe to examine the periods of its history whose discriminatory -isms have a particularly long half-life. With the merger of DfID and the FCO, its attitude has progressed from reluctance to full-on denial.

Helena Roy is a doctoral student in the Department of Economics at Stanford University. She lives in London and Palo Alto.