How DFID’s expertise could enhance the UK’s foreign policy

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How DFID’s expertise could enhance the UK’s foreign policy

June 23rd, 2020

by Devin O’Shaughnessy, WFD’s Director of Programmes


The recent announcement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of plans to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) will undoubtedly impact the UK’s approach to development assistance for many years to come.

Despite the inevitable challenges that will result in the short term, the creation of FCDO presents an opportunity to reshape key policy priorities, partnerships, and delivery mechanisms.

From my perspective inside the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) – the UK’s leading democracy assistance organisation and a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – I see a chance for the new department to put advancing democracy and human rights at the forefront of the UK’s foreign policy, security, and development strategy. We have learned some key lessons from DFID’s approach.

Keep hold of the good stuff

WFD’s own experience of working with DFID – a partnership that began in 2008 – has been extremely positive. The opportunity to work closely with DFID’s Governance Advisers has been hugely beneficial given their unmatched skills in political analysis, development practice, sectoral expertise, and monitoring and evaluation. We have also learnt from seeing first-hand the benefits of a rigorous approach to evaluating the impact of ODA-funded programmes. By insisting that everything is evaluated, DFID has often resisted the urge to simply throw money at a problem to try to fix it.

WFD has utilised this exposure to strengthen its own systems and approach many times over, and is a much stronger organisation for it. DFID has also allowed us to scale up, running larger and more impactful programmes than we could with FCO funding alone. Hand in hand, WFD has designed, monitored, adapted, and evaluated a range of programmes in close collaboration with DFID Governance Advisers:

  • WFD’s global Inclusive and Accountable Politics programme – supported by DFID’s Governance, Open Societies, and Anti-Corruption (GOSAC) Department – has helped us advance women’s political leadership, address the needs of people with disabilities, and support parliaments and civil society to demand greater transparency and hold governments accountable to their citizens.
  • DFID has supported WFD’s largest country programme, in Myanmar, since 2016, allowing us to scale up our work with MPs, parliamentary committees and staff, and civil society organisations to improve the capacity of the parliament and support members to engage effectively with the people they represent.
  • DFID also supported WFD’s work with the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa and Democracy Reporting International to conduct a review of electronic voting machines in the DRC, helping break a deadlock between government and opposition that had delayed national elections for over a year.
  • WFD has established a research programme in close collaboration with DFID GOSAC, researching emerging issues in democracy assistance such as: the impact of election observation; the role of political trust in democracies; comparative studies in legislative scrutiny; women’s impact inside parliaments; parliaments’ role in protecting civic space, and the growing “cost of politics”; amongst many other themes. Our research is now pivoting to examine the impact of COVID-19 on democracy.

DFID’s expertise in design, monitoring, adaptation, and evaluation should not be forgotten or lost – instead, it should be integrated into the DNA of the FCDO. I believe this integration can work, mainly because I have already witnessed it first-hand.

Some examples of effective joined-up FCO-DFID working

In the last few years, I have increasingly seen DFID governance advisers deployed to work with the FCO hand-in-hand in developing and designing Conflict, Security, and Stability Fund (CSSF) funded programmes. The results give me confidence that increased collaboration can continue to pay dividends. Three of WFD’s existing CSSF programmes – in the Western Balkans, Bangsamoro in the Philippines, and Lebanon – rank amongst our most innovative programmes, operating in complex contexts where I believe traditional approaches would struggle to achieve similar results.

For example, through WFD’s Western Balkans Democracy Initiative, we have worked closely with UK embassies in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia – coordinated by a DFID secondee under CSSF – to address critical problems such as youth unemployment, weak political parties, poor financial oversight, parliamentary boycotts, and violence against women, amongst many other locally identified and prioritised policy issues. Bringing this together under one regional programme has created opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas and new approaches, while also creating stronger solidarity across borders.

In Bangsamoro, an autonomous region of the Philippines, the UK Embassy was able to react quickly to WFD’s initial ideas for engagement, seizing on the opportunity to develop relationships with the leaders of the newly established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARRM). Following this initial engagement, WFD worked with seconded DFID personnel inside CSSF to develop a new programme designed to help Moro leaders establish legitimate and capable political institutions from the start. This entire effort has been built on earlier work the Embassy supported with the Northern Ireland Assembly, an inspired effort that created soft power linkages between the UK and the Philippines at a time when most international actors struggled to engage in the region.

In Lebanon, for the last 14 years WFD has implemented a range of independently-funded DFID and FCO programmes supporting improved parliamentary practice, women’s political leadership, and defending human rights. In 2019, WFD began implementing a CSSF-funded programme that involved input from both FCO and DFID, and brought many of these strands together into one larger joint initiative. Given the challenging and rapidly changing political and security context, having both FCO and DFID involved allowed our programme to adapt more quickly and strategically. This has proven particularly valuable in the COVID-19 context.

Mentoring for women’s political leadership in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as part of WFD’s CSSF-funded Western Balkans Democracy Initiative.

Expanding the reach of official development assistance (ODA)

Another opportunity that arises from the merger is to apply DFID’s expertise to a wider range of countries, outside of the 30 or so countries DFID has prioritised in recent times. Poverty is a serious problem in middle-income countries as well as those that are least developed, and this is usually linked to weaknesses in democratic governance and protection of human rights. Pockets of stubborn deprivation and significant inequality often remain, even as GDP rises. This is usually because women, young people, minorities, people with disabilities (PWDs), and those living in extreme poverty typically lack the political influence necessary to advance more progressive policies. The mobilisation of DFID expertise inside FCDO will create new opportunities to engage middle-income countries that have struggled to eliminate poverty, protect human rights, and consolidate their democratic systems.

In addition, evidence has shown that sharing democratic standards, systems and values regionally can be decisive in transforming formerly autocratic or closed states. Political leaders can be positively influenced by peers whom they are geographically and historically closer to, while citizens and movements increasingly influence like-minded counterparts across borders, as they did during the Arab Spring and the “colour revolutions” across Europe and Central Asia.

With its global footprint, FCDO will have the ability to engage a wider set of countries, for example by collaborating with influential democracies such as Ghana, Botswana, South Africa, Indonesia, India, and Mexico. Working together, sharing the challenges to democratic practice that all of us have faced in recent years, the UK could help build regional coalitions of middle- and lower-income countries committed to reducing poverty and strengthening democratic practice on a wider scale.

The creation of FCDO, and the completion of the Integrated Foreign Policy, Defence, Security and International Development review, provides a unique opportunity for the UK to transform how it advances its goal of a rules-based international system, anchored on core British values of democracy and human rights.

Democracy assistance is one of the fundamental ways the UK can support this agenda, and much has been learned and continues to be learnt. The joint expertise of FCDO – combining FCO’s political acumen, diplomatic skills, and understanding of soft power with DFID’s commitment to robust, long-term, evidence-based interventions along with its development expertise – could make the critical difference. If the UK government manages this merger well, then there is real potential for the UK to fill the existing global leadership vacuum in democracy support, and for Global Britain to help reshape the world into one that puts dignity, freedom, human development and peace at its centre.

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