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As the crow flies: mapping the power of DFID at home

October 23, 2011

According to rumours, the UK’s Department for International Development is planning to move from its current office next to Buckingham Palace to the Old Admiralty Building, off Whitehall. This is of course highly symbolic – one of the government’s tools of altruism and soft power, moving into the old headquarters of the Senior Service, ultimate tool of empire and Britain’s military reach for more than two hundred years; even while DFID’s budget is increasing and that of the Ministry of Defence is being cut. But it is important for more practical reasons, too.

The approximate distances in kilometres between the current and proposed new offices of DFID and other departments of state and government buildings are as follows: 

Distance from current DFID office Distance from proposed new office
Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)



Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS)



Ministry of Defence (MoD)



Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC)



The Prime Minister’s office (10 Downing Street)






Average (km)




True, DFID is closer to Buckingham Palace (where the Queen sometimes lives) than are the others, but in 2011 this is not a sign of its closeness to the centre of power. Meanwhile, the other departments of state listed above are all clustered in or very close to Whitehall – the centre of executive government – and Parliament. 

DFID has often been seen, by its staff and its supporters and collaborators in civil society, as outside or on the edge of government. And some have welcomed that. The 1997 White Paper which was DFID’s founding document included language about how helping poor people abroad was somehow in the UK’s self-interest. But it wasn’t at all convincing, and you felt that then Secretary of State for DFID Clare Short and her staff didn’t really see that as important: what mattered was getting on with the higher mission and task of helping those who needed help. Under Short and successive ministers DFID’s aid programme has gone from strength from strength, quadrupling in size from £2 bn in 1997 to about £8 bn today. Famously, DFID is one of only two ministries whose budgets have survived the cuts instituted under the current government, which has committed to increasing the aid budget by more than 20% over the next two years.

Prior to the 2010 general election, when people expected the Labour government to lose, it was common to hear staff of UK overseas development NGOs expressing their fear that an incoming Conservative government would place less value on aid, and would make it subordinate to other national interests. It was common to hear people say we needed to “protect aid from foreign policy objectives”. At the time I felt this was the wrong approach, and that we should stop seeing overseas aid as separate from foreign policy, but rather an intrinsic and integral part of it. If there are tensions between our aid programme and other aspects of the UK’s interests abroad, we should manage and where possible resolve them – that is after all the whole point of cabinet government.

Good news therefore if DFID is moving to the Old Admiralty building next year, which puts it within a 5 minute walk of all the departments mentioned above, except the BIS which remains just under a kilometre away. UK overseas aid will remain an important feature of the international institutional landscape, as poor people’s lives continue to be disrupted by natural and man-made disasters, and as they try to build more prosperous lives and better approaches to governance. It’s important that everyone in government and outside sees DFID as a critical part of government, not some do-gooding add-on department, of limited relevance to the core issues of the next decade. This is particularly important given the hostility felt by most taxpayers towards the government’s commitment to increasing the aid budget at a time of economic difficulty. Thus being closer to No. 10 Downing Street – to which the Old Admiralty is presumably connected by an underground tunnel – is of great importance.

The rivalry between DFID and the FCO seems to have been much diminished of late. Some at the FCO harboured a feeling of resentment after their overseas aid function was removed with the creation of DFID in 1997; the progressive marginalisation of the FCO in UK foreign policy (e.g. over Iraq) did little to remove this feeling, especially as DFID’s budget continued inexorably to rise. A huge amount of time and energy has been expended over the years by civil servants from the two departments in trying to “coordinate” their efforts, and this is beginning to pay off, especially as the FCO feels like it is being taken more seriously under the current government, than before. Being closer physically to one another will make this that much easier, for example in collaborating on UK policy towards specific locations like post-civil war Libya, or on global issues like the UK’s engagement in and support for UN agencies.

And this is equally true of DFID’s need to work closely with other departments. There are countless examples: e.g. its shared interest with the BIS on improving the transparency of oil and mining companies and host governments in poor countries; its need to work with the MoD on Afghanistan; and its need to collaborate with the DECC on the development of financing mechanisms to support adaptation of poor communities in the face of climate change.

Meanwhile of course it is essential that DFID and Parliament are walking step-in-step, so that taxpayers’ representatives and ministers/civil servants can keep one another well-informed. The UK’s overseas development programme is justly viewed by many as one of the world’s best. It has been the subject of great changes over the past 15 years. It is now faced by the need to make other important changes in an era of increased transparency, more competition for resources, a greater focus on concrete results, on the need to find new mechanisms to assist conflict-affected and “fragile” countries, and within a changing international institutional landscape. This will be hard, and therefore all the more reason for DFID’s London office to be as close as possible to the place where important decisions of state are made and monitored.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2011 8:02 pm

    Phil, where did you get the news that DFID (London) will be shifting its location? In any case, I say it makes no difference as a sizeable portion of DFID’s work is based at its East Kilbride HQ.

  2. Jonathan Glennie permalink
    October 25, 2011 9:20 am

    Nice blog. reminds me of Tony Blair’s joke at ODI meeting last week about when he went to an African country and asked a DFID employee how he felt working for his government. “I don’t work for the government,” came the reply, “I work for DFID”.

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