Penny Mordaunt, former DFID secretary of state. Photo by: Reuters

LONDON — The U.K. Department for International Development should take its “strategic lead” from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, a former DFID secretary of state has said, as the department waits to learn whether it will remain independent.

Penny Mordaunt, who led DFID from 2017-2019, also said official development assistance should be used to help achieve domestic objectives.

“There’s no point in us spending X amount on education in Y part of the world, if that entire place is going to be flattened by a conflict that we’re not helping prevent. We’ve got to do this in a joined up way.”

— Penny Mordaunt, former DFID secretary of state

Speaking on whether DFID should remain a standalone department amid persistent rumors it could be merged into FCO later this month, Mordaunt described it as “an operational department. It does things, like [the Ministry of] Defence, and it should take its strategic lead from the Foreign Office.”

She told an audience at London’s Chatham House think tank that when she led the department, she “made a point” of taking her ministerial team to the FCO on a weekly basis “because that was, to me, where the strategic direction should come from.”

But Mordaunt also reminded the audience of DFID’s “quality work,” pointing to the high caliber of its staff. She said there was public support for taxpayer-funded ODA, but a lack of trust in politicians to deliver it appropriately.

Mordaunt was also critical of FCO during her talk, saying the department “hasn’t really found its feet and hasn’t got the strategy it needs in Whitehall.”

Asked by Devex whether giving FCO a strategic lead over DFID risked undermining the department’s poverty reduction aims, Mordaunt said: “We [the U.K.] have brought those [aims] in and we’ve stuck with them, because ultimately it's in our interest to do that. We also have got apparatus that measures them, that’s very transparent ... So I don’t think it’s that at all.”

“The Foreign Office and National Security Council and the strategy do shape how we spend our ODA. A large part of my shift was actually realigning that and getting it to function better. That’s a good thing, not just because it makes strategic sense and is a sensible thing to do, but because unless we’re getting everything to pull in the right direction, we’re not going to be effective globally.”

“There’s no point in us spending X amount on education in Y part of the world, if that entire place is going to be flattened by a conflict that we’re not helping prevent. We’ve got to do this in a joined up way,” she said.

Mordaunt, who caused controversy during her time in office by refusing to describe DFID as an “independent” department, also suggested U.K. aid could be used to support local authorities to accommodate “high-need refugees.”

“If we could use ODA money for capital costs for those individuals you would then open up all kinds of possibilities for our own domestic charities, places like [disability charities] MENCAP and Scope,” she said.

Mordaunt continued: “Could we not use some of that money to create some amazing facilities for high-need refugees and their families? But also used with other pots of money for British children with disabilities.”

Under the rules for aid spending set by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ODA may be used to support refugees in donor countries for one year after they arrive.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process.