LONDON — Despite raising eyebrows last month for refusing to give a firm answer about the future of the U.K. Department for International Development, secretary of state Penny Mordaunt has again claimed that DFID is not an “independent” department in a letter obtained by Devex on Monday.
In a letter to Preet Gill — the Labour Party’s shadow minister for international development, who was seeking clarification of Mordaunt’s earlier remarks — the U.K. aid chief wrote that her department “could not … be described as ‘independent,’” and that she hoped to “move the debate about DFID on from being one about where our desks are situated to being focused on delivering the global goals.”
“When there are repeated calls for the Department for International Development to be absorbed into other departments ... this is not a time to spend time debating the definition of words.”— Preet Gill, U.K. shadow minister for international development
Her comments come as speculation grows about the future of the department, with some of Mordaunt’s Conservative Party colleagues supporting a merger with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Many in the aid community believe this would be detrimental to U.K. aid. Katherine Nightingale, head of advocacy and policy at CARE International UK, told Devex last month that a merger would risk diverting aid funds from poverty reduction to defense or business interests.
U.K. development chief Penny Mordaunt declined to give a firm answer during a newspaper interview on whether DFID would still exist in five years' time.
Mordaunt has not taken a clear stance on the issue but stoked concerns last month when she declined to give a firm answer to Financial Times reporters about whether her department would definitely exist in five years’ time. She also said DFID is “not an independent department” because it collaborates with other government departments, some of which are already hosting DFID staff.
Although Mordaunt defended DFID as “a hugely valuable entity,” her comments were seen as worrying by some observers in the U.K. aid sector closely watching the debate over the future of DFID.
Gill, who is responsible for shaping international development policy for the opposition Labour Party, wrote to Mordaunt for clarification. She asked the secretary of state: “Do you consider the Department for International Development to be an independent department? And, if so, do you agree that this independence is vital if the department is to continue its work as a world leader in international development? Going forward, I know a commitment from yourself that, for as long as you are secretary of state, you will publicly and privately defend the department from any attempts to remove or hinder this independence would allay fears that this work might be under threat.”
Mordaunt’s response, seen by Devex and dated February 2019, does not make that commitment.
“The department is obviously a standalone entity … However, I would not describe it as independent,” Mordaunt wrote. “It works with and across government to deliver the global goals … DFID staff have desks in London and in Scotland, but also at the Department for International Trade, the Cabinet Office and in the Stabilisation Unit in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office … Given what we do, who we do it with, and how we do it, the department could not therefore be described as ‘independent.’” She did not make any clear comment on the future of DFID in the letter.
Ian Mitchell, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development think tank, told Devex by email that he would “welcome DFID working more closely with other government departments — using all our policy levers ... on investment, environment, health, and migration to accelerate progress towards the global goals ... But ... it’s unusual for a Cabinet Minister to assert their department’s lack of independence — [the] Treasury and Cabinet Office work across Whitehall, and may have loaned staff [to other departments] to assist on Brexit — but you wouldn’t hear their ministers say those departments aren’t independent. That leaves the impression this is about signalling future direction.”
Gill described Mordaunt’s response as “disappointing.” She said that “while a number of MPs from across the political spectrum … have publicly stood up to defend DFID and U.K. aid in recent weeks, the secretary of state has remained silent on the matter. This sends a worrying signal to the international development sector.”
On Mordaunt’s explanation about DFID not being independent due to its interaction with other government departments, Gill said: “Of course it is appropriate for DFID to work with other departments; this is not up for debate. But when there are repeated calls for the Department for International Development to be absorbed into other departments ... this is not a time to spend time debating the definition of words.”
The issue could rise to the fore if there is a snap election prompted by the U.K.’s impending exit from the European Union at the end of March. Prime Minister Theresa May previously abolished the Department of Energy & Climate Change following her appointment in July 2016, merging it with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills under a single secretary of state.
Other donors have also merged their aid and foreign affairs departments in the past, including Canada and Australia in 2013.
However, explicit support for the proposal in the U.K. so far has come primarily from backbench MPs.
A DFID spokesperson said: “DFID is a standalone government department. This is government policy and there is no suggestion this is going to change.”