Respite for DFID as Anne-Marie Trevelyan named secretary of state

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, newly appointed U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Chris McAndrew / CC BY

LONDON — A sense of temporary relief reigned among development professionals in the U.K. on Thursday, as the government’s Department for International Development gained a new boss and remained an independent entity.

“We hope that today’s announcement signals a clear commitment to keeping DFID as an independent department and isn’t a stay of execution.”

— Patrick Watt, director of policy, public affairs, and campaigns, Christian Aid

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, member of Parliament for Berwick-Upon-Tweed, will replace Alok Sharma as secretary of state for DFID following a reshuffling of the Cabinet. Trevelyan, who is a strongly pro-Brexit member of the Conservative Party and has previously expressed views skeptical of aid, will be DFID's sixth secretary of state in four years.

The appointment quells months-long rumors that the department could be folded into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office — at least for now.

At the same time, however, the rest of the ministerial team was merged with FCO, meaning all of DFID’s junior ministers will now work across the two departments.

Trevelyan said she was “delighted to be appointed International Development Secretary … I will ensure that UK aid promotes girls’ education around the world, tackles climate change, works to end preventable deaths and helps countries receiving aid become self-sufficient. I want to show the British public we are delivering the best results for their aid, transforming the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, while promoting Britain’s economic and security interests.”

Despite previously holding no senior positions in government, Trevelyan will oversee the department at a time of immense change, as government priorities shift increasingly toward a “mutual prosperity” approach to aid.

But experts warned it was too early to say if DFID’s long-term future was secured, as a far-reaching integrated review of the U.K.’s defense, security, and foreign policy looms.

Prior to his landslide election victory in December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson advocated merging DFID with FCO. There were also fears DFID could lose its secretary of state, making it subservient to FCO and removing its senior influence within the government.

The promotion of Trevelyan to the role confirms there will not be any major structural changes to DFID in the short term. A former chartered accountant, she previously served as minister for the armed forces, a junior ministerial post within the Ministry of Defence.

This experience will likely be valuable to Trevelyan at DFID, giving her an “understanding of the bigger picture of the U.K.’s global profile,” said Ian Mitchell, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Mitchell told Devex that Trevelyan is taking on the role at a critical time. “We’re about to enter into a period where the government is going to take an integrated review of its international position ... and the role of U.K. development within that,” he said.

“That will pave the way for a spending review that will also look at how we spend our aid … [which] will set the direction and spending profile for the next five years. The new secretary of state will have a new, very important part to play in this.”

Trevelyan’s appointment was welcomed by U.K. civil society figures, but their comments highlighted the continued unease over DFID’s future and frequent leadership changes.

“The new secretary of state needs to work with other departments to ensure a cross-Whitehall, strategic approach to development, that measures success in terms of the impact on poverty,” said Patrick Watt, Christian Aid’s director of policy, public affairs, and campaigns.

“It is critically important that DFID retains a seat at the Cabinet table and continues to be the main channel for U.K. aid. We hope that today’s announcement signals a clear commitment to keeping DFID as an independent department and isn’t a stay of execution.”

ActionAid’s deputy director for humanitarian response, Mike Noyes, said: “Whilst we’re pleased that DFID remains independent with its own secretary of state, it’s important that the new minister is given enough time to make a real difference. This is the third change to the role in under a year — high turnover like this is detrimental to decision-making and can ultimately have a grave impact on those in desperate need.”

While last year’s Conservative Party manifesto was scant on development detail, it did promise to continue spending 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance. But there are fears this commitment is being eroded as increased amounts are spent through other government departments, such as the FCO, with lower levels of transparency than DFID. There have also been concerns — most recently around the U.K.-Africa Investment Summit — that ODA is being spent to promote commercial interests instead of poverty reduction programs.

“It is right to keep an independent DFID. Now we just need the [Conservatives] to stop abusing the aid budget,” said Dan Carden, a Labour Party politician and shadow secretary of state for international development. “I urge the new secretary of state to take seriously her department’s role in tackling global poverty and inequality by prioritizing the needs of the world’s poorest people.”

“High turnover like this is detrimental to decision-making and can ultimately have a grave impact on those in desperate need.”

— Mike Noyes, deputy director for humanitarian response, ActionAid

Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond, the U.K. network of NGOs, said that to meet the government’s ambitions to be “a truly global Britain … U.K. aid must … be fully transparent and accountable to the British taxpayer and local communities, meet internationally agreed rules, and remain untied to our strategic and economic interests.”

There was also some concern about comments posted on Twitter by Trevelyan several years ago, which indicated a skepticism about aid. For example, when DFID retweeted a 2012 ONE Campaign video with accompanying text reading, “No one in Africa should go hungry,” she replied: “nor in the UK. There r kids in NE [the Northeast] who have no regular meals due to chaotic parents. Should they go hungry?”

“People probably say all sorts of things before they take on the position,” said Simon Maxwell, a development commentator and former chair of the European Think Tanks Group. “What we need to hear from her now is a tough, robust commitment to development cooperation, poverty reduction, the SDGs, to 0.7[%], and the role of DFID.”

The Cabinet reshuffle also saw James Cleverly, former chairman of the Conservative Party, made a joint minister for DFID and FCO. Andrew Stephenson, a junior minister, was moved out of the department.

Sharma, the former secretary of state for DFID, was made business secretary and will take on the COP26 presidency.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 13 and Feb. 14 to include additional information.

About the author

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    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.