The New Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office: More of the same?

Amidst Brexit and a pandemic, the U.K. government announced an ambitious merger of its foreign and development ministries, which took place in September. As the country undertakes a major review of its foreign and defense policy, what do the past and present of UK. aid tell us about the potential trajectory of British foreign policy under the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office?

On both sides of the Atlantic, bureaucratic transitions are underway. While President-Elect Biden’s transition team is struggling to acquire the necessary approvals to assume control of federal agencies in the United States, the UK government has been engaged in its own, quieter, bureaucratic transition.[i] In the final months of protracted, tortuous negotiations to secure a post-Brexit deal with the European Union, Prime Minister Johnson’s government embarked on another major shift in the UK’s international policy: the creation of a new department to oversee both the country’s foreign relations and its development policy.[ii]

On September 2, the erstwhile Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) became the FCDO—the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—after the UK government decided in June to fold the Department for International Development (DFID) into the FCO.[iii] While the potential effects of the merger on the United Kingdom’s bilateral and multilateral diplomacy remain unknown in the longer term, it is important to assess this move in the context of the United Kingdom’s broader foreign policy history and parallel developments today.

Merging in uncertain times

The Foreign Office (as it is most commonly known) has existed under many guises, but the FCDO merger sits within a particularly complex web of major developments in the United Kingdom’s governance, as well as its relationship with the rest of the world.[iv] Brexit represents the most significant shift in two generations since the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community in 1973 during the age of decolonization and British imperial decline. Today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings have advocated radical reform across government departments. Sometimes called the “War on Whitehall,” they claim that departmental reform will make governance more efficient and more effective.[v] The merger is just one part of this. Meanwhile, the country is struggling to contain a coronavirus second wave, Brexit negotiations are stalling, and chaos and resignations among Johnson’s advisers in recent weeks have only caused more domestic uncertainty.[vi]

Indeed, the latest merger is not even the first major departmental change in the United Kingdom’s international policy this year. Following the United Kingdom’s formal departure from the European Union on January 31, the Department for Exiting the European Union (with its tongue twister acronym, DExEU) closed its doors. Its civil servants returned to the Foreign Office and other departments to continue working on the mechanics of Brexit from there.

As we described recently in the Journal of International Affairs, Johnson’s government has also taken several significant strides in an attempt to bring its vision for an influential “Global Britain” to fruition in recent months.[vii] For example, the United Kingdom responded to Chinese repression in its former territory of Hong Kong by offering a path to British citizenship for Hongkongers. The government also independently used Magnitsky-style sanctions against human rights abusers for the first time, which it extended most recently to the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko through sanctions imposed in partnership with Canada.[viii] Moreover, the United Kingdom just gained a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, holds the presidency for the forthcoming COP26 climate talks, and launched a new space diplomacy initiative at the UN.[ix] Clearly, there is much more than Brexit to UK foreign policy in 2020. While these varied steps demonstrate a willingness to go beyond the insularity that Brexit seemed to portend, they do not yet amount to a coherent vision for a progressive global power.

In search of such a vision, this year the government and relevant parliamentary committees are also conducting their Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy and finished collecting evidence in September.[x] The review is the equivalent of the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and is designed to review all aspects of UK international policy and set out a vision of Britain’s role in the world for the next decade.[xi] However, the fact that the government pushed through such a major departmental merger before the end of the review’s evidence collection period shows that the decision was not based entirely on the considerations of sound public policy.

The “hole in the wall”

Although some observers expressed discomfort with Prime Minister Johnson’s decision to merge the FCO and DFID just two months after he announced his intention to do so, these departments have a long history of merging and unmerging.

In the aftermath of World War II, three separate departments directed UK foreign policy, dealing with Foreign, Colonial, and Commonwealth Relations, respectively. The modern conception of development policy did not yet exist. In 1963, however, a war between Indonesia and Malaysia highlighted the inefficiencies of the UK foreign policy administration. While the Foreign Office dealt with Britain’s relations with Indonesia, the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO) oversaw Malaysian affairs, and the government as a whole struggled to coordinate its response. The conflict between the two countries led to a reevaluation of the departments’ roles and a realization that greater interconnection was necessary. The government acted quickly, knocking a physical hole in the wall between the two buildings. The fissure became known as the “hole in the wall,” which the foreign secretary would cross to access the CRO.[xii]

However, this new aperture was a temporary fix to an increasingly thorny problem. In 1962, then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had appointed a committee “to review the purpose, structure and operation of services responsible for representing the interests of the UK government overseas,” with echoes of the Integrated Review taking place today.[xiii] Macmillan’s review led to a merger of diplomatic and colonial service staff, and the eventual creation of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service in 1965, which still serves the country abroad to this day.

The idea of UK international aid as its own defined policy area had its roots in Harold Wilson’s Labour government. In 1964, Wilson established the Ministry of Overseas Development, the United Kingdom’s first dedicated development agency, which was responsible for the management of the government’s overseas technical aid programme. In 1966, he brought together the CRO and the Colonial Office to form the Commonwealth Office, and in 1968 merged the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office to create the FCO.

A political football

Nearly a decade of political point scoring followed. Conservative Ted Heath dissolved the Ministry of Overseas Development in the early 1970s, only for Wilson to reinstate it in 1974, until finally Margaret Thatcher re-merged Overseas Development with the FCO in 1979.

The FCO remained the status quo for two decades of Conservative governments, until the Labour Party’s landslide victory in 1997. Prime Minister Tony Blair extracted development policy from the FCO and renamed it the Department for International Development (DFID), establishing a pattern: Labour governments sought to separate aid from diplomacy, while Conservatives chose to merge them, usually for budgetary reasons. Under Labour, DFID placed a premium on partnership, recipient country ownership of project, and deference to international development targets.[xiv] Labour also set the agenda for the future of DFID, which has focused on international collaboration in poverty reduction ever since, and continued to meet the OECD recommendation of 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid.[xv]

Under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government from 2010 to 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron bucked the historical trend. Cameron’s government kept DFID in place and committed to the UN’s 0.7 percent target—despite growing public criticism—while positioning “national interest” at the forefront of DFID’s agenda. But budgetary concerns were still present: Andrew Mitchell, Cameron’s first Secretary of State for International Development, introduced “payment by results” mandates. These agreements meant that aid delivery partners only received full payment on demonstrating the impact of their intervention. Mitchell also established the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) to assess the effectiveness of the United Kingdom’s aid policy and ensure it met the 0.7 percent goal.

It is clear, therefore, that the Foreign Office has institutional experience in development policy. However, the political angle is telling: the Labour Party has established a Department for International Development three times, and three times the Conservative Party has abolished it.

A development superpower?

In his address to Parliament in January 2020 outlining his plans for the year ahead, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab touted a “thorough and careful review of the United Kingdom’s place in the world,” but made no mention of the FCO-DFID merger.[xvi] Although he talked about “a fully integrated strategy” across departments, Raab’s speech did not provide a rationale for, or a preview of, the creation of a new department.

With the Conservative government driving such a radical political agenda, no individual or group that has submitted evidence to the Integrated Review advocated for the merger of the two departments. The international NGO Save the Children argued for an “independent Department for International Development as the best way of projecting the United Kingdom’s influence as a force for good in the world and safeguarding its global reputation as a ‘development superpower’.” The use of this term turned the foreign secretary’s own language from a June parliamentary debate to justify the merger against him.[xvii] DFID’s ability to work in the field with local partners at arms’ length from UK embassies was also a soft power asset, Save the Children argued.

Although the US-based Mercy Corps did not advocate explicitly for a merger in its evidence submission, it suggested a focus on fragile states in the United Kingdom’s foreign policy, which a merger could facilitate over the longer term.[xviii] An integrated development and diplomatic strategy may indeed prove more effective in areas requiring both direct aid and security assistance through the United Kingdom’s Conflict Stability and Security Fund, such as in Yemen and Somalia, where the United Kingdom is a major player. The ICAI did not recommend for or against the merger, but the fact that the government did not wait to review the aid watchdog’s recommendations before going ahead with the merger indicates that caution and reflection is needed if Britain is to make a success of this organizational change.[xix]

Budgets and bureaucrats

In any event, aid will remain a key component of UK foreign policy. David Cameron’s successors have, so far, maintained his commitment to spending 0.7 percent of GDP on development assistance. Johnson’s government has claimed it will do the same, with a focus on pandemic and famine relief in Africa.[xx] 96 percent (around £14 billion) of the current merged FCDO budget is allocated to aid spending, given the sheer cost of administering aid programs in comparison to other aspects of diplomacy and foreign policy.[xxi] In Johnson’s view of Global Britain, a new allocation of resources may ultimately lead the United Kingdom to move away from aid focused on poverty reduction, among other places, and pivot toward more geopolitically strategic regions, such as Eastern Europe, in that sense building on Cameron’s legacy of aid as a strategic tool in the “national interest.” The Spending Review that follows the Integrated Review will be crucial.[xxii]

Yet, under the FCDO, there is now no Cabinet-level minister solely responsible for development. Instead, development is part of the foreign secretary’s portfolio. On the Civil Service side, there will be no permanent secretary for international development, with those responsibilities moving to the head of the Diplomatic Service. This has budgetary implications. As the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based international affairs think tank, noted, the development budget will fall under the management of the foreign secretary and the head of the Diplomatic Service, both of whom report directly to the prime minister, the Treasury, and to Parliament. Meanwhile, programs previously managed by DFID will now be the remit of heads of missions in key developing countries, most of whom have an FCO background. This highlights a certain tension in the department, as, ultimately, the number of senior personnel dedicated to international development is decreasing.

While the merger of two separate communications departments into one overall FCDO structure creates the possibility for unified messaging under a single UK banner, the need to redeploy and retrain FCDO civil servants for different roles is central to the first few months of the new department’s existence. The ICAI highlighted the need for greater “technical expertise and intellectual leadership” on development issues, something more common in DFID than among the generalists at the FCO.[xxiii] The fact that many staff continue to work from home during the pandemic, and changing situations  in the host cities of UK diplomatic missions around the world, the full personnel and budgetary implications of the merger will likely remain unknown for months to come.

Another consideration will be the impact of COVID-19. While the government has committed to the 0.7 percent target, this does not make the aid budget safe from cuts. As the UK economy enters a pandemic-induced recession that will see overall cuts of nearly £3 billion this year, there is fitting concern that these cuts will not be a one-off event.[xxiv] These concerns have surfaced recently in reports that the Treasury is pressuring Number 10 to cut the aid commitment to 0.5 percent of national income in the November Spending Review.[xxv] The proposed cuts risk hamstringing the Integrated Review, because they would force the foreign secretary – who opposes the cut – to make a U-turn on his September commitment to the current aid target.

At bilateral posts, where the FCO has always taken the lead over DFID, development staff will need to find ways to adapt to the new FCDO structure. For the United Kingdom’s multilateral missions to the United Nations, the merger may simply mean more of the same. With an existing contingent of DFID staff already reporting to the ambassador, and a significant aid component to the missions’ work, the formal merger may mean the same tasks, just with a different email signature. Indeed, the government might look to the United Kingdom’s multilateral missions for a model of how to integrate aid and traditional diplomacy effectively at post.

Uncertainty ahead

Much remains uncertain about the future direction of British foreign policy. The merger’s impact on the government’s agenda will not become clear until well after the majority of FCDO employees in Westminster return to their physical offices when the worst of the pandemic subsides. For now, the reorganization has been largely a virtual one.

Forcing the merger through in less than two months, however, was one thing Johnson’s government could in fact control during a turbulent period for the country at home and abroad. Ultimately, the budgetary and personnel implications may end up as the most profound changes, while field operations and bilateral relations remain largely unchanged. Whether foreign diplomats choose to adopt the new FCDO moniker, or stick to the old FCO, remains to be seen. In any case, the UK government should consider the forthcoming recommendations from the Integrated Review extremely carefully. This will help ensure that the new department’s approach proceeds not on the basis of politics, but on data, best practices, and the United Kingdom’s long-term strategic interests.

This article is based, in part, on conversations with officials whose work has been impacted by the merger.

Alistair Somerville is the publications editor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He is the author of the recent report, “Steering HMS Global Britain.” Find him on Twitter @apsomerville

[i] Rein, Lisa, O’Connell, Jonathan, and Dawsey, Josh. “A little-known Trump appointee is in charge of handing transition resources to Biden – she isn’t budging.” The Washington Post. 11/09/2020. 11/17/2020.

[ii] Boffey, Daniel. “EU vote on Brexit deal could be delayed until 28 December.” The Guardian. 11/16/2020. 11/17/2020.

[iii] Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister announces merger of Department for International Development and Foreign Office, (10 Downing Street: Prime Minister’s Office, 2020), 

[iv] Oxford LibGuides, “Parliamentary Papers, Proceedings and Departmental Papers : UK: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office,” 11/17/2020,

[v] Rutter, Jill. “Will Dominic Cummings triumph in his war on Whitehall?” Prospect Magazine. 01/27/2020. 11/17/2020.

[vi] “Covid-19: PM announces four-week England lockdown,” BBC. 10/31/2020.;  Somerville, Alistair. “Bluffs, buccaneers, and Brexit: What doe sthe theory say?” Medium. 09/23/2020. 11/17/2020.; “Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain: Exits give chance to ‘reset government’,” BBC, 11/14/2020. 

[vii] Peter, Alexander and Somerville, Alistair. “Unilateralism Won’t Help Global Britain.” Journal of International Affairs, Columbia University. 08/06/2020. 11/17/2020.

[viii] “UK, Canada impose sanctions on Belarus’s Lukashenko.” Al Jazeera. 09/30/2020. 11/17/2020.

[ix] The UK Mission Geneva, Twitter Post, October 2020, 7.30 p.m.,; Landale, James. “Can space diplomacy bring order to the final frontier?” BBC. 09/26/2020. 11/17/2020.

[x] Cabinet Office, Integrated Review: call for evidence, (Cabinet Office, 2020), – :~:text=The Integrated Review of Security,rooted in our national interests

[xi] U.S. Department of State, The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, (U.S. Department of State, 2015),

[xii] Smith, Richard. “1968 and all that: the creation of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.” Foreign Office Historians. 10/17/2018. 11/17/2020.

[xiii] (1964) The Plowden report, The Round Table, 54:215, 222-227, DOI: 10.1080/00358536408452491, 11/17/2020. 

[xiv] Anders, Molly. “DFID turns 20: The 7 politicians who shaped UK aid.” devex. 09/11/2017. 11/17/2020.

[xv] OECD, The 0.7% ODA/GNI target – a history. 11/17/2020.

[xvi] Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Foreign Secretary’s introduction to the Queen’s Speech debate, (Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 2020)

[xvii] Written evidence submitted to the Integrated Review by Save the Children (INR0014),; United Kingdom, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, Volume 677, 06/18/2020.

[xviii] Written evidence submitted to the Integrated Review by Mercy Corps (INR0037),

[xix] Written evidence submitted to the Integrated Review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (INR0072),

[xx] McVeigh, Karen, “UK will lead world on tackling famine and Covid with new department, says Raab.” The Guardian. 09/02/2020. 11/17/2020.

[xxi] Chalmers, Malcolm. “Farewell Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Welcome Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.” RUSI. 06/16/2020. 11/17/2020.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Written evidence submitted to the Integrated Review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (INR0072),

[xxiv] Durrant, Tim. “The new FCDO needs to show it can do both parts of its job well.” Institute for Government. 09/01/2020. 11/17/2020.

[xxv] Boscia, Stefan. “Rishi Sunak ‘pushing’ for cut in UK’s aid budget in spending review.” CityAM. 11/17/2020. 11/17/2020.

Alistair Somerville
Alistair Somerville