LONDON — Alok Sharma was named as the U.K.’s latest secretary of state for international development on Wednesday, joining the cabinet of new Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Nonetheless, it was a moment of quiet relief for the development community amid speculation that DFID might lose its secretary of state under aid skeptic Johnson and be asked to report to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
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.
Hours earlier, responding to her final questions in Parliament, former Prime Minister Theresa May defended DFID, saying she was “proud of the fact that we have a Department for International Development” and describing the aid budget as “an important element of our standing in the world.”
A newcomer to the development world, Sharma previously served as employment minister in the Department of Work and Pensions, housing minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and minister for Asia and the Pacific at FCO.
As housing minister, he handled the response to the deadly Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. He was criticized by survivors for the slow pace of the response, but attracted media attention when he became emotional during a parliamentary speech about the tragedy. In 2016, Sharma also served as the prime minister’s infrastructure envoy to India — the country where he was born — and the same year led the U.K. delegation to the Global Investors Summit to meet with Indian industry leaders, policymakers, and investors.
Sharma was first elected as a member of Parliament in 2010, following a career in accounting and banking.
He campaigned for the U.K. to stay in the European Union ahead of the referendum in 2016, but he now says the government must deliver Brexit and supported Johnson’s bid for leadership.
Little is known about his views on aid, but he released a statement Wednesday saying “we will work across the whole of government to deliver Brexit and make sure U.K. aid is tackling global challenges that affect us all, such as climate change, disease, and humanitarian disasters.”
He added: “Investing 0.7% of GNI [gross national income] on international development shows we are an enterprising, outward-looking, and truly global Britain that is fully engaged with the world. I am committed to transforming the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, giving them access to quality education and jobs, while promoting Britain’s economic, security, and foreign interests.”
Former development secretary Rory Stewart resigned following Johnson’s win, having said he would not serve under Johnson due to disagreements over Brexit. He had been in the role for less than three months.
Despite the disappointment over Stewart’s departure — who was regarded by many as deeply committed to aid and highly qualified for the job — members of the aid community were still relieved to see DFID retain its independence.
Johnson has previously backed calls to cut the aid budget and scrap the department. His new cabinet includes many high-profile critics of aid in positions of power, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new leader of the House; Dominic Raab, the new foreign secretary who recently said he supports merging DFID with FCO; and former international development secretary Priti Patel, who has been appointed home secretary despite having to resign over a political scandal in 2017.
However, many believe that the threat to the integrity of U.K. aid is not over yet.
David Westwood, director of policy and programs at World Vision UK said in a statement:
“We know that aid is spent most effectively and transparently through DFID, and we urge Sharma to fight for it to remain an independent department … Sharma has a real opportunity to ensure that UK Aid continues to prioritise the world’s most vulnerable children and their communities — especially in fragile and emergency contexts. It is crucial that he maintains the 0.7 per cent aid budget, and puts a focus on the causes of humanitarian emergencies such as conflict and the climate crisis.”
In an emailed statement to Devex, Stephanie Draper, chief executive officer of U.K. development NGO network Bond, thanked Rory Stewart “for the commitment shown to tackling the most pressing challenges of our times, particularly raising the profile of the global climate crisis while he was Secretary of State for International Development.”
“We look forward to working with Alok Sharma and would urge the incoming Secretary of State ... to continue to champion a poverty-focused development agenda that supports the Sustainable Development Goals, and works to reach the world’s poorest and most marginalised people by prioritising good quality aid and development,” Draper said.