Mordaunt cranks up national interest rhetoric in keynote speech

Penny Mordaunt, U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Foreign & Commonwealth Office / CC BY

LONDON — United Kingdom Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt dialed up the “national interest” rhetoric Thursday, during a wide-ranging speech on the future of U.K. aid.

Presenting to the Chatham House Conference in London, Mordaunt repeatedly returned to the Department for International Development’s focus on delivering aid “in the national interest,” while also offering hints about the department’s focus areas in the coming year. These include ramping up spending on family planning; a renewed push to change the internationally sanctioned rules on aid spending; and a look toward new partners, namely China.

Whether speaking about the work of CDC, the U.K.’s development finance institution, or the cross-government strategy to spend more aid outside DFID, Mordaunt made a clear case for the national interest as a common thread running throughout her speech, using the term seven times during the 20 minute address.

Aid in the national interest typically means choosing aid projects based on their potential to produce commercial, political or economic gains for the donor, alongside the needs of recipient countries. The concept is sometimes linked with tied aid — that is, aid delivered through goods and services purchased in the donor country. Often used as an advocacy or communications tactic for rallying support behind aid efforts, experts claim that “national interest” arguments are typically ineffective in swaying U.K. public opinion.

Speaking about aid effectiveness, Mordaunt said that DFID “must do the most good with the money that we have and that means effective aid spending, but also if we can achieve that and help the national interest in a more direct way, then we will do so,” adding that the approach has “led to more co-designed and co-funded projects with other government departments.”

Asked about how DFID plans to deter irregular or undocumented migration, Mordaunt pointed to recent meetings with U.K. businesses and investors in Birmingham and Cardiff as part of a bigger effort to “reduce obstacles for British businesses to invest in Africa,” including a new collaboration with the Department for International Trade involving “a business integrity hub at its heart so we can help businesses who are worried about corruption and those types of issues.”

Reforming the rules

Mordaunt renewed calls for reforming the rules around classifying official development assistance —  established by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee — following in the footsteps of predecessor Priti Patel, who had pushed for changes that would allow for more spending on peacekeeping and security-related issues. She had also wanted the ability to spend ODA on wealthier but disaster-struck countries that wouldn’t usually qualify under the DAC rules, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck several Commonwealth nations last year.

DFID “will continue to push for reform of the DAC rules where we think they prevent spending on legitimate humanitarian missions.”

— Penny Mordaunt, U.K. secretary of state for international development

Mordaunt said, “we need to ensure that how we are meeting the 0.7 [percent of gross national income spent on aid] is sensible and works for the British public in the long term, so we are focused on ensuring that there is nothing that hinders the most effective use of those funds. We are working with Treasury to ensure that our compliance with that world-leading pledge is done in the most effective way possible,” but added that DFID “will continue to push for reform of the DAC rules where we think they prevent spending on legitimate humanitarian missions and that counting as ODA.”

The U.K. ultimately withdrew its proposal for ODA spending on higher-income countries at the DAC high-level meeting in November, after failing to secure a consensus. However, the committee did agree to examine the rules for readmitting graduated countries that have fallen back into lower-income categories in time for the next DAC high-level meeting. The U.K. also joined a number of countries in a successful effort to increase the amount of aid spent on peacekeeping efforts, which can count as ODA.

“We have won the argument regarding doubling the proportion of our U.N. peacekeeping costs that count as ODA and we are winning the argument that countries that slide back into poverty can be ODA eligible again,” Mordaunt said.

Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns at Bond, a network of U.K. NGOs, told Devex that the sector would be “alarmed” if rules around spending on wealthier countries “were changed in a way that risks distorting the primary objective of aid ... We would not want to see the U.K. abandon already robust OECD-DAC rules, diverting aid from the world’s poorest countries and people towards the national interest,” she said.

A recent inquiry into ODA administration by the parliamentary International Development Committee concluded that the U.K. government should not seek to change the rules around spending ODA on middle-income or wealthier countries unless they meet existing ODA criteria, either due to natural disaster or conflict.

Hints at future focus areas

“I have always had a special relationship with China ... and I really want China to lean in more on some of the things that we do.”

Mordaunt also offered a few clues about future DFID engagement in her comments, namely around strengthening partnerships both within the U.K. government as part of the cross-government strategy, and overseas, particularly with China.

“I have always had a special relationship with China ... and I really want China to lean in more on some of the things that we do, on humanitarian assistance but also, I think, [on] global health security, where China has a great track record,” she said.

Mordaunt said that as the world relies more on the economies of countries such as China to drive growth, DFID is “looking at how to deepen our partnership with them, as their global impact on the rules-based international system and global public goods increases.”

She added that DFID is “looking closely at the development needs of a wide range of countries that have transitioned out of extreme poverty in recent years, but still face challenges, particularly of growth and job creation. We need to work with these countries to build their markets so they can grow.”

UK aid figures spark renewed alarm over cross-government spending

The U.K. once again increased the ODA amount spent outside DFID, but aid groups fear the money — now around a quarter of the aid budget — isn't reaching DFID standards on transparency and poverty reduction.

On the cross-government strategy — under which the U.K. has pledged to spend around a third of its aid budget outside DFID by 2020 — Mordaunt said her department is doing more to integrate efforts across aid-spending departments. The controversial strategy has faced concerns that other government departments are less well placed to spend in line with aid priorities compared to DFID, and about a lack of coherence and coordination.

The DFID chief pointed out that around 60 members of her team “are embedded with the Department for Trade to form a joint team responsible for shaping the U.K.’s future trade arrangements with developing countries.”

“From the start of my tenure I have chosen to take my entire ministerial team to [the] Foreign Office ... weekly ministerial meeting. And I have spent time with the leadership team of ambassadors, trade envoys, and diplomats in the U.K. service.”

Mordaunt said she is “mapping key planning decisions in internationally facing government departments ... so the decisions we take, whether in programs or replenishments, are the best informed and the most impactful.”

Finally, Mordaunt said the international community can expect the U.K. to increase its engagement on family planning. 

“We have to ensure that we and others remain committed to family planning services and funding those things. We are likely to step up our work on that front much more, in Africa and elsewhere. It’s part of the solution, empowering women to take control of how many children they have and when, enabling them to be economically active,” she said.

Russell Hargrave provided additional reporting.

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.