Rory Stewart: New DFID chief with a colorful career

Rory Stewart, the new U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: REUTERS / Simon Dawson

LONDON — The new U.K. secretary of state for international development, Rory Stewart, has been hailed by the aid community as one of the most qualified ministers yet, having previously served as a junior minister in the department, as well as in the military and foreign service.

But the foreign policy veteran is known as much for his colorful commentary and unexpected tales as for his expertise — including media reports that he had sold the rights for a biopic of his life story to Plan B Entertainment in 2008, the production company partially owned by Brad Pitt, and StudioCanal. Stewart claimed that Orlando Bloom had expressed interest in playing him.

Announced as the new head of the Department for International Development Wednesday evening, he replaces former leader Penny Mordaunt, who now heads up the Ministry of Defence.

The reshuffle marks a promotion for the 46-year-old who was previously prisons minister in the Ministry of Justice.

Aid community reacts as Rory Stewart replaces Penny Mordaunt as DFID chief

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The member of parliament for Penrith and The Border in the north-west of England is considered by aid insiders as well-qualified for the job, having formerly been a minister of state for DFID, as well as a joint minister for DFID and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

He moved to the Ministry of Justice in January 2018 where he hit the headlines for vowing to resign if drugs and violence in prisons didn’t go down after a year  — a promise he no longer has to keep thanks to the reshuffle. He has also been a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal — possibly winning him his new job.

Stewart’s colorful career before joining parliament in 2010 may also serve him well in his new role.

Educated at Eton College and Oxford University, Stewart is the son of a diplomat. He was briefly in the British army and later joined the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, serving in Indonesia, Montenegro, and then as a military aide and the deputy governor of two southern provinces in Iraq, during which time his compound was besieged by militia. He was awarded an Order of the British Empire for his services there.

He also has NGO experience, having established the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a British NGO working in Afghanistan to support traditional arts, which he ran between 2005 and 2008.

But Stewart’s biggest claim to fame is his grueling walk across Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal in 2002, about which he wrote a well-received book, “The Places in Between.” He was also director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and advised former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on Afghanistan.

He has a reputation for toughness and not suffering fools, but also as a careful decision-maker.  He has given some colorful interviews in the past, notably expressing his frustrations about advising politicians in an interview with PBS in 2009:

“It's as though they come to you and they say, ‘We're planning to drive our car off a cliff. Do we wear a seatbelt or not?’ And we say, ‘Don't drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, no. That decision's already made. The question is should we wear our seatbelts?’ And you say, ‘Why by all means wear a seatbelt.’ And they say, ‘Okay, we consulted with policy expert, Rory Stewart,’ et cetera,” he said.

But while the new DFID chief seems a good fit for the role, he has made no secret of his ambitions to become prime minister. He recently told The Spectator magazine: “If you want someone who really enjoys doing stuff and loves government and is really proud of the country and feels that’s their thing, I’m really enthusiastic.”

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.