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International Development Research @ Cambridge


DFID and FCO merger must prioritise research for alleviating poverty: An open letter

This open letter from the University of Cambridge follows the announcement on 16 June 2020 by the Prime Minister of the merger of the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) into a new department – the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

This merger marks a pivotal moment that has the potential to strengthen further the policy impact of the exceptionally high-quality research for which DFID has gained a world-leading reputation – provided that a number of the principles that have underpinned its success up to now continue and are strengthened in the new Department, as we suggest below. Through this letter, we ask for a continued commitment for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to fund research and for this funding to continue to focus on evidence that impacts on alleviating poverty and supporting the most vulnerable. Thanks to ODA funding for such research to date, academics at the University of Cambridge have been able to partner with universities and research institutes in the Global South to deliver research that has had an impact on people’s lives, through education, health, water and sanitation, nutrition, food security, the environment and climate change, amongst other areas  – a selection of examples can be found here.







6 August 2020

The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, Prime Minister
The Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, Foreign Secretary
The Rt Hon Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP, Secretary of State for International Development


As researchers at the University of Cambridge, we welcome the ongoing commitment of the UK government to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on international development. This commitment confirms the UK’s leadership in recognising the importance of targeted spending towards poverty alleviation and supporting the most vulnerable, including in the most fragile countries of the world.

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID)’s commitment to ‘Leaving No One Behind’ – the underlying principle of the Sustainable Development Goals – has rightly been applauded internationally. One of the unique aspects of the UK’s leadership in moving this agenda forward has been a strong and sustained commitment to funding research aimed at promoting an evidence-based approach both to DFID’s priorities, as well as to inform global development priorities more widely. DFID is held in high esteem internationally for its firm commitment to rigorous research, promoting working in equitable partnership with institutions in the South, with the expectation that such research achieves national and global policy impact.

Recognising the important role this research has played, we request the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) continues to honour the commitment from the 2019 UK International Research and Innovation Strategy to spend the equivalent of 3% of the DFID annual budget on research that generates global public goods that deliver impact at scale. Despite the £2.9 billion cut announced on 23 July 2020, the protection of the UK’s 0.7% foreign aid commitment overall, and the commitment of 3% of research funding within this, should still be respected.

International development research has been supported by DFID and other government departments to date, with the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund, for example, providing important lessons on research with priority Overseas Development Assistance (ODA)-eligible countries. With the upcoming merger, it is essential that research continues to adhere to the principles of ODA, which explicitly aim to tackle extreme poverty and help the world’s most vulnerable, “with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as the main objective”.

Rigorous research is essential in enabling DFID and other UK government departments, national governments and the international development community to make evidence-informed decisions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and ensure a safer, healthier, more prosperous world. Indeed, our own research at the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with institutions in the Global South, has contributed to these endeavours – including in areas aimed at improving the livelihoods of vulnerable communities. Examples include providing evidence on what works in education, health, water and sanitation, nutrition, food security, the environment and climate change in countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and many other countries (see examples here).

The benefits of ODA support to evidence-informed policy go beyond the amount that DFID and other government departments spend on such research. Benefits have also been gained by working through equitable partnerships. DFID has led the way in its model of working in partnership with universities and research institutes in the Global South, as well as with non-governmental organisations, the private sector and major philanthropic organisations, to achieve impact.

The 2014 House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence report ‘Persuasion and power in the modern world‘ concluded that the promotion of British values through the funding of international development projects can yield significant soft power gains. ODA-funded research spending has been an important form of indirect influence for Britain, fostering engagement with Southern partners and strengthening relationships with national governments in priority countries. Lessons learned from DFID’s leadership in establishing long-running partnerships with the Global South have led to durable and influential relationships with governments around the world. This approach ensures value for money, transparency and impact.

The current COVID-19 global pandemic has shown more than ever the value of rigorous data and evidence to inform policy. Given DFID’s leadership in this field, and how this has proven benefits both globally and for the UK itself, we request that the merger continue to respect the principles of aid spending on rigorous evidence to benefit the world’s poorest through equitable partnerships with maximum impact.

We are excited by the opportunities that the merger creates to enable the University of Cambridge, together with our partners around the world, to continue our journey with the FCDO to ensure the further strengthening of the UK’s leadership in promoting high-quality impact for poverty alleviation.

Yours sincerely,

The Co-Directors for the University of Cambridge Global Challenges Strategic Research Initiative, the University's Strategic Research Initiative for the Sustainable Development Goals:
Professor Alan Blackwell, Department of Computer Science and Technology
Dr David Good, Department of Psychology
Professor Pauline Rose, Director, Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, Faculty of Education

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