LONDON — Boris Johnson was announced as the United Kingdom’s new prime minister Tuesday afternoon as aid leaders urged him to protect the country’s development commitments.
The first immediate impact for the development community was the resignation of international development secretary Rory Stewart following the announcement. He had maintained for weeks that he would not serve under Johnson due to their disagreements over Brexit, though he said it would be “heartbreaking” to leave the role.
With his departure, Stewart — who had been in the job for less than three months — becomes the shortest-serving secretary of state in the history of the U.K. Department for International Development.
Many in the sector saw him as one the best-qualified leaders the department has ever had, and consider his departure a loss.
Of the entire ministerial team that was in place four months ago, just one person remains. What does it mean for the department?
But insiders say it is what happens next that really counts. With Johnson having taken a turn against aid in recent times, there are fears the office will go to an aid skeptic, and that steps could be taken to limit DFID’s control over the aid budget or merge it with another department.
As a result, all eyes are on the announcement of Stewart’s replacement — which is expected by the end of the week — and whether the department will retain full independence with a secretary of state position.
Sara Pantuliano, acting executive director of the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank, said: “Speculation is rife that the new prime minister will merge DFID with the Foreign Office and the International Trade Department … There is a risk that its considerable expertise on the ground is lost; that U.K. leadership in humanitarian and development work could be eroded; and aid could become politicized.”
Clarence Edwards, a consultant on geopolitical risk and former adviser to DFAT in Washington, D.C., explained that “in an era of increased nationalist sentiment, foreign aid … [is a] ripe target for politicians ... If DFID does get consolidated, it should be [a] wake up call for the sector.”
Some believe the more likely scenario is that DFID will retain its independence but will see more of the aid budget spent through other departments or on programs that are seen to benefit British national interests.
Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director of the ONE Campaign, urged Johnson to protect the integrity of U.K. aid spending.
“If our new prime minister wants to strengthen our clout on the world stage ... he must keep the U.K. at the heart of the fight against extreme poverty … The world needs Britain to be great right now, and that means staying the course on our contribution to overcoming global challenges, including by keeping U.K. aid poverty-focused, effective and transparent,” she said in a statement.
Update: Further reporting was added to this piece on July 24, 2019.