The Glue of Empire: Why Closing the Department for International Development (DFID) is a Step Backwards for the UK

The Glue of Empire: Why Closing the Department for International Development (DFID) is a Step Backwards for the UK

Henrice Altink, Sara de Jong and Jean Grugel

On 16 June 2020 Boris Johnson announced the immediate preparation for the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The timing, as much as the content of the announcement, could not be more interesting.  It is no surprise that Johnson has been accused of using the announcement as a “pure distraction”, from the massive protests across the UK in support of Black Lives Matter or the hard fact that racism means that BAME communities are disproportionally affected by Covid 19 compared to their white counterparts.

The decision to merge DFID with the FCO, which effectively means dispersing much of DFID £15.2 bn budget into other departments of government comes hard on the heels not only of Black Lives Matter protests but also of the momentous decision to leave the European Union in order to try and plot out a uniquely ‘British’ economic and political identity through Brexit.

The glue linking the closure of DFID, institutional racism and Brexit is of course Empire. The UK had been inching its way, albeit slowly and painfully, towards defining a post-colonial identity. DFID was a crucial part of that identity. Since 2013, the UK has met its international commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross Domestic Income on overseas aid, and that commitment was enshrined in law in 2015. DFID has been crucial in ensuring that this spend was directed at low-income countries and at the poorest communities. But since 2015, both DFID itself and the aid budget have come under sustained attack in sections of media and by elements of the Conservative Party.

The decision now to close DFID is a clear indication of where this government stands in relation to the struggle taking place in the UK, right now, about the meaning of Empire. For its defenders, UK aid is one of the ways that the country can begin to play a more positive role in a world after centuries of violence and exploitation in the name of Empire. For its detractors, aid is a waste of money, or in Johnson’s own words a “giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interests“. Instead, he argues, the UK should robustly defend, even mimic, its imperial past. As he said some years before becoming Prime Minister, ‘the best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers scrambled once again in her direction, on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty’.

Never has how we teach and research the past, in schools and universities, and the meaning we give to it been so critical.  It is no surprise, in the current climate, that the demand for undergraduate courses in International and Global Development is rising. Young people in the UK are keen to better understand their place in the world and to find a moral compass for global citizenship.

International Development degrees provide students with much more than an understanding of the politics, history and economics of low and middle-income countries. Just as importantly, they encourage students to explore the place of the UK and other ‘developed’ countries in the world and to examine how far their authority to speak now rests not on principled leadership but on historical injustices. These very historical injustices were silenced and side-lined in the Prime Minister’s statement on DFID’s future, which described UK aid as “the finest demonstration of British values, following in the great tradition of the country that ended the slave trade”.

Many International Development students ask, rightly, why global aspirations for developing countries are so low: can it really be the case that the goal of eradicating extreme poverty (understood as living on $1.25 a day) by 2030 and the elimination of stunting and wasting in children by 2025 are the best we can achieve? They see aid as an important corrective to the current unjust state of global affairs, not only as an instrument to “maximise British influence”. They feel that Black Lives Matter at home, and that they also matter abroad. The Prime Ministerial statement of today that “We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security”, seems to cast doubt on that.

For these reasons, closing DFID feels like an attack on the small steps the UK had begun to take towards defining a post-imperial role based on values of solidarity, decency and reparation. It also feels like an attack on those of us who want to teach our students to develop a critical lens on the UK’s past and to plot out a more acceptable role for its future. UK universities need to make their voices heard in this debate and express their opposition, forcefully, clearly and consistently, to the government’s decision to close – or ‘merge’ –  DFID, for the sake of our students, our research and our values.


Henrice Altink is Professor in Modern History and Co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre (IGDC) at the University of York, Sara de Jong is a Lecturer in Politics and Co-Chair of the University of York Migration Network and Jean Grugel is Professor in Development Politics and Director of the IGDC at the University of York