Penny Mordaunt, new U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: DFID

LONDON — The first public statement from the United Kingdom's new secretary of state for international development has been greeted with cautious optimism by members of the aid community, one of whom described it as a “breath of fresh air” for the embattled department.

Penny Mordaunt, who took over as head of the Department for International Development last week following the shock departure of Priti Patel, had a busy first week, meeting with development leaders including the United Nations head António Guterres and World Bank President Jim Kim. She also found time to pen an op-ed, which was published by The Telegraph newspaper and offered a first glimpse of her priorities for DFID.

Industry insiders said they were broadly encouraged by Mordaunt’s first public statement — largely because of its pro-aid tone, with the article opening with the statement: “I believe in aid.”

“It’s optimistic and enthusiastic … and that’s a really important breath of fresh air” for a department that has been “downhearted” in the face of constant attacks from the public, media, and some right-wing politicians, according to Alex Thier, executive director of the London-based think tank, the Overseas Development Institute. He added that DFID has also seen a degree of leadership “churn” in recent years,

Mordaunt’s predecessor, Patel, was unpopular with many in the sector for remarks she made before her tenure about wanting to abolish DFID, and a perceived anti-aid approach.

A number of aid workers told Devex they were also pleased to see the new minister reiterate the message that “we must leave no-one behind.” But they sounded a note of caution, pointing out that new secretaries of state take time to get “up to speed” on their brief, and will inevitably seek to establish their own priorities going forward.

The CEO of CARE International in the UK, Laurie Lee, said that while the op-ed contains “good positive core messages” around aid saving lives and offering the government a good return on investment, it is important “not to read too much into it.”

“Let’s give her some time to get into the job,” he said.

Grounds for optimism

Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director of the One Campaign, said she was encouraged to see the new minister express pride in U.K. aid so early in her term.

“Mordaunt saying that aid is something both she and the British people can be proud of is a really positive message and I’m very glad it’s there,” she said.

Thier described the op-ed as having been “pitched perfectly” for the U.K. aid sector. “It’s exactly what you want to hear … [her] saying that development aid is vital for helping people and the national interest, and then [she] immediately went on to say it’s complicated,” he said.

Although the piece does devote a lot of time to discussing the need to justify U.K. aid to the public through transparency and offering value for money, this message is “not unexpected,” Greenhill said, and is accompanied by an acknowledgment that development is complicated. For example, Mordaunt writes that while DFID must offer the public “clarity and transparency,” she adds that “this is not always easy: not least because of the complexity of funding relationships and the long-term nature of what we do.”

Thier and Greenhill said they were pleased to see the new minister focus on more than just immediate impact, also referencing how U.K. aid can contribute to long-term stability.

Jeff Crisp, associate fellow at Chatham House, added that Mordaunt is clearly “distancing herself” from her controversial predecessor by opening with such a clear pro-aid statement. He described the piece as “very carefully crafted” and devoid of the kind of “ideological” arguments favored by the previous secretary of state.

Mordaunt “distances herself from Patel,” he said, by avoiding the kind of “brazen ideological” references to “the private sector, aid as a means of gaining new trade deals, and aid as a foreign policy instrument,” which he says Patel favored.

The piece concludes with what some aid experts have interpreted as a positive endorsement of the pledge to spend 0.7 percent of the U.K.’s gross national income on aid. It states that “our objective … will only be achieved by spending 0.7 per cent of GNI well.”

Greenhill interpreted this as a “positive” endorsement of the target. Crisp agreed, saying the piece clearly “shows she won't be pushed around by the right-wing and Daily Mail.”

But Thier points to the phrasing as being “carefully worded” and said it is “clearly not saying the 0.7 percent is the be all and end all.”

Hit the ground running?

A key concern for the aid community following Patel’s abrupt departure was whether her successor would be able to hit the ground running in order to limit the disruption, as Devex reported.

For Thier, the op-ed shows that Mordaunt has taken “immediate ownership” of the department and its development agenda. She seems to grasp the key issues facing DFID, he said, but also positions herself as someone with experience, referencing her time working “alongside” aid workers. Mordaunt spent time as a student volunteering in hospitals and orphanages in post-revolutionary Romania.

She also praises aid staff, describing them as “heroes,” and talks about the “generous” work done by local volunteers throughout the U.K., including in charity shops, community groups, and faith groups — something that Thier said helps position her as a supporter of the sector. Mordaunt has significant experience in the U.K. charity sector, having worked as a director of the Big Lottery Fund and Diabetes U.K.

A former DFID staffer who spoke to Devex on condition of anonymity for professional reasons said they interpreted Mordaunt’s “pushing her own personal aid experience” as an indication she was on top of her new brief.

“It took [former secretary of state Justine] Greening six months to get up to speed when she started, and Patel more than a year, but I expect this secretary of state to be the quickest yet,” the staffer said.

National interest framing

Thier said the general theme of aid in the national interest is “a key message threaded through the piece,” with references to the Ebola crisis and to conflict, for example. But both he and Greenhill argued that the national interest argument is an important point to make.

“Making the point about enlightened self-interest early on is extremely important,” said Greenhill, adding “this is the right narrative, since a fairer and safer world is in all our interests.”

However, the former DFID staffer said the continuation of the “aid for trade” agenda under Mordaunt “will disappoint many in DFID, but is no surprise at all. It will be significantly more [prominent] post-Brexit.”

Crisp agreed, saying the op-ed’s commitment to “helping the world’s poorest while furthering U.K. strategic interests” appears to contradict DFID’s own humanitarian reform policy, released in September, which commits the department to international humanitarian principles of independence. That includes a commitment to keeping humanitarian action “autonomous from political, economic, military, or other objectives.”

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He also pointed out that the mention of tackling modern slavery — Prime Minister Theresa May’s “pet project” — shows Mordaunt attempting to “align herself with the prime minister.”

What’s missing?

Mordaunt’s piece talks about harnessing the “energy of the U.K. science and technology sectors,” specifically mentioning innovations in vaccines and drought-resistant seeds for agriculture. Thier said he was happy to see this included, adding that institutions like DFID need “to be the convenors and catalysts” to drive such innovation.

But, while it is early days for the new DFID minister, the fact that climate change was not mentioned in the piece — especially considering the ongoing COP23 meetings in Bonn — came as a surprise to some.

“If there’s one thing we really need to hear from DFID leadership, on which it has been a little too quiet in the last 18 months, it is the need for action on climate change,” Thier said, adding “I would definitely want to see more of that [from Mordaunt].”

The piece also makes no reference to the multilateral systems, through which DFID channeled 36 percent of its budget in 2016, according to new ODA statistics released by DFID on Thursday.

Greenhill also said she hoped the new secretary of state would focus on girls’ education, something that her predecessors, Greening and Patel, both prioritized, but was absent from the article.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DFID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDFID.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.