Penny Mordaunt, the new U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Number 10 / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development has had a chaotic week. On Tuesday evening, its secretary of state for international development Priti Patel suddenly resigned after a 16-month tenure, following revelations about unauthorized meetings with foreign officials.

A day later, a new secretary of state was installed. Penny Mordaunt was officially named as DFID’s new head on Thursday afternoon.

Having previously served in the Ministry of Defence and most recently as minister of state for disabled people, health and work in the Department of Work and Pensions, Mordaunt is an outsider to DFID. Her appointment drew mostly blanks from the aid industry immediately after it was announced.

But some clues are now emerging as to where the new DFID minister’s priorities could lie, and what her appointment might mean for the international development sector.  

Devex spoke to experts to get their insights on how current DFID policy might survive the transition, and what they want from the new secretary of state.

A politically driven appointment

Unlike her predecessor, and most of those who have come before her, Mordaunt does appear to have some limited experience working as a humanitarian. Speaking during a debate in the House of Commons last month, she recounted her time as a student, more than 25 years ago, working in hospitals and orphanages in post-revolutionary Romania. She spoke proudly of U.K. aid workers, as speculation around her appointment grew this week. During a charity conference on Wednesday evening — the night before her appointment — she described “the British aid workers I worked with in the former eastern bloc” as “beacons of our common humanity.”

Mordaunt has more substantial experience in the U.K. domestic charity sector, having served as director of strategy, policy and partnerships at Diabetes UK. She has also held positions at the Community Fund and the Big Lottery Fund, and worked closely with charities and community groups in her role as minister for the disabled. Industry insiders said U.K. NGOs are feeling “reassured” and hopeful that Mordaunt’s history with the “third sector” will translate into greater influence and increased access to DFID funding than under Patel.

However, it appears that Mordaunt’s appointment was based mainly on political considerations. As a Brexit supporter and a woman, her appointment helps Prime Minister Theresa May maintain the political and gender balance in the Cabinet, something May appears to be taking advantage of; this morning she outlined plans to enshrine the Brexit leaving date into law and said she will not "tolerate" any attempt to block Brexit.

Mordaunt has never rebelled against her party in the current Parliament.

The 0.7 percent and government priorities

Industry insiders told Devex the U.K.’s commitment to spend 0.7 percent of national income on aid is likely to be safe under Mordaunt, who in 2014 voted in favor of the target.

According to both Amy Dodd, director of the U.K. Aid Network, and Alex Thier, executive director of the London-based think tank, the Overseas Development Institute, the 0.7 percent commitment is unlikely to change any time soon — although the ODI director said it would be “foolhardy” to assume it is safe.

“The [debate over the] 0.7 percent target came up and was effectively disposed of in the last election … [but] I don’t think it’s gone away and we would all be foolhardy to think it’s safe,” he said.

Jeff Crisp, associate fellow at Chatham House, added in a statement on social media that DFID’s budget “is under serious attack from the right wing of the Conservative Party.”

A key way for DFID to ensure the safety of its budget would be to better demonstrate how its work and priorities align with those of the public and the government, said Thier.

“The people and government of the U.K. care deeply about prosperity, national security, and foreign policy,” Thier explained, adding that these are “100 percent and directly in line with” DFID’s own priorities.

“We need to see a strong signal from the next leader saying that the goals of DFID are in line with the aspirations of the British people, we need to hear that,” he said.

Jonathan Glennie, director of Ipsos Mori’s Sustainable Development Research Centre, agreed. “The aid sector needs to make the case that aid is both effective, important, transparent, and broadly in our national interest,” he said, but added that he hopes the scandal surrounding Patel’s departure will not “damage those efforts.”

While experts also called for migration to be at the heart of Mordaunt’s policy agenda — pointing out that she will be leading negotiations for the United Nations Global Compact for Migration, which needs to be agreed next year — they also said DFID should not use aid as a way to deter migration.

As a staunch “Leave” campaigner, the new DFID head has repeatedly voted against the rights of EU nationals already living in Britain to remain post-Brexit.

The private sector

Harnessing the private sector and economic development as drivers of tackling poverty was a key focus for DFID under Patel, and this is something aid experts say they expect will continue under the new secretary of state.

Owen Barder, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, described Patel as having driven “measures to support private investment, jobs, and growth,” during her 16-month tenure. Barder also noted Patel’s moves to professionalize the way DFID procures services from private sector partners.

Central to the department’s growth agenda was the decision to dramatically ramp up the amount of money it channels through its development finance institution, the CDC. This was announced by Patel at the World Bank in October, although the plan was initiated by her predecessor Justine Greening. It would see DFID invest an average of 620 million British pounds ($815 million) in CDC per year until 2021.

In January, Mordaunt voted in the House of Commons to recapitalize the CDC. In general, her voting record positions her as pro-business, having always voted in favor of lowering corporation tax rates.

But aid experts pointed out that the CDC commitment would be unlikely to change regardless, since the decision to recapitalize the development finance institution has already been approved by both DFID and the Treasury.

Furthermore, Thier said the policy appears to be in line with U.K. government priorities, and with development trends that focus on economic growth, bringing in private finance, and efforts to make development finance go further.

New priorities?

The change in leadership also represents an opportunity for change, and aid experts have already started lining up the issues they would like to see DFID pay closer attention to going forward.

As Thier noted, under Patel’s watch DFID “has not been a strong voice on climate change,” something he hopes will change under Mordaunt. DFID also needs to step up its work in two key areas, he said — working in fragile states, and focusing on marginalized groups and the poorest of the poor — if it hopes to play a part in accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals.

“People excluded from the economy … [and] the challenges … that emanate from fragile states … DFID really needs to double down and focus on those things,” he said.

This was echoed by the CEO of Bond, the U.K.’s NGO network, Tamsyn Barton, who said:  

“The incoming secretary of state must provide leadership on the SDGs, ensuring that no one is left behind, tackling global challenges affecting the poorest, including climate change, and ensuring that economic development is inclusive.”

According to Dodd, the focus on the private sector championed by Patel, while “hugely important,” is in danger of shifting the focus away from the most marginalized, and thus requires a “more nuanced” approach by the new DFID head.

“Of course we all recognize the private sector is hugely important to long-term development,” she said, but the department needs to go beyond “thinking just about growth and trade” to focus on “good trade and inclusive growth,” she said, in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Agenda of leaving no one behind.

This agenda “requires thought and planning … [and] strategic interventions,” she said, recommending that DFID “think more about how we do that.”

In a blog on the ODI website, Elizabeth Stuart, head of programme, called on the new secretary of state to “cheerlead” the “leave no one behind” policy, including dedicating 50 percent of DFID’s budget to the poorest countries and to projects that serve “areas of greatest need within those countries.” This will require a greater appetite for risk within the department, since “prioritizing the poorest and most vulnerable may be more expensive,” she wrote.

Additionally, having another woman in the job could help drive DFID’s strong focus on gender, and especially girls’ education, which began under former DFID leader Justine Greening and was continued by Patel, according to Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director of the One Campaign.

“Key to ending poverty is the empowerment of women and girls,” Greenhill said in a press statement. “Through Ms Mordaunt’s leadership, the UK will be able to drive the reform agenda and continue to improve the quality of education … ONE and its members wholeheartedly pledge their continued support and assistance to Penny and her dedicated staff and wish her every success.”

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DFID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDFID.

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.