Priti Patel, U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DfID / CC BY

Although the U.K. Parliament is in summer recess, the government is moving forward shaping departmental briefs and establishing policy direction under Prime Minister Theresa May.

The U.K. Department for International Development’s new team of ministers, led by DfID’s new chief Priti Patel, is coming to grips with the government’s priorities. Patel has pledged to strengthen U.K. trade access by leveraging aid commitments to secure better terms of trade with the developing world.

New DfID head divides UK aid community over trade focus

The new head of the U.K. Department for International Development under Theresa May's new government is hoping to put trade at the heart of the U.K.'s aid agenda. Development insiders are unsure whether that's a good first step toward a successful cross-government aid strategy or a move to devalue DfID.

Patel is not the only new face at DfID; May has overhauled DfID’s entire ministerial team.

This group of officials from the Parliament — each assigned regions and sectors within DfID’s portfolio — will help determine DfID’s direction under Patel. As the dust settles from the EU referendum and the ink dries on the new U.K. cross-government aid strategy, these individuals — some of whom are new to aid and even to government — as well as the civil servants at DfID likely have their work cut out for them.

Minister of state for international development

Rory Stewart, Officer of the British Empire, member of Parliament

Photo by: Crown Copyright / CC BY-NC-ND

Rory Stewart is far and away the aid community’s darling among DfID newcomers. A Conservative MP from Penrith and the Border, Stewart gained prominence with the general public after his 6,000-mile hike across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, India and Nepal in 2002.

Stewart wrote a book about the Afghanistan segment, “The Places in Between,” which the New York Times praised for transcending the travel writing genre; reviewer Tom Bissel lauded Stewart’s courage for venturing into territory still tenuously held by Taliban forces. He made even the gutsiest forebears in the genre “look like Hilton sisters,” Bissel wrote.

Stewart’s intrepid strolls also led him to co-found an NGO, the Turquoise Mountain Trust, which operates in Afghanistan and specializes in urban generation, business development and education in traditional Afghan art and architecture.

As DfID works to push funding through other ministries, part of the new cross-government strategy, implementers appreciate Stewart’s knowledge and early work at the Foreign Office. Stewart worked in Indonesia as East Timor gained independence, in Montenegro after the Kosovo campaign and served as deputy governorate coordinator in two southern regions in Iraq in 2003-2005.

During his Iraq appointment, Stewart coordinated elections, resolved tribal disputes and implemented development projects, before civil war broke out. With this experience, Stewart could be well-positioned to help bridge the gaps in effectiveness between various branches of government, as aid is increasingly spent across ministries. The FCO, for example, has a poor track record in development project implementation compared to DfID’s implementer pool.

“Of course, we need to balance the administrative tasks of reducing red tape and rigorously assessing which programs offer value for money, with working closely with our colleagues in Defence and the Foreign Office to use our aid program as a means to create a prosperous and more stable world,” Stewart told his local paper the Cumbria Crack last month.

Although a conservative representing a constituency largely against increased aid spending, Stewart voted for the commitment to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on foreign aid and often makes the case for U.K. aid’s potential as a soft power mechanism. Stewart also voted to remain in the EU, unlike the other MPs on the new DfID ministerial team.

“In the current world climate this is going to be a huge challenge, but one I relish; and I will do my best to continue in the tradition of those who believe that meeting our responsibilities to the world’s poorest, is in the interests of our own standing and security in the world,” he said.

Stewart will oversee DfID’s portfolio in the British Overseas Territories and Western Asia as well as the Middle East and North Africa. Sectorwise he will specialize in conflict-affected areas, humanitarian response, governance and anti-corruption and economic development.

“One of the appointments we were pleased about is Rory Stewart,” Charlie Matthews, Senior Advocacy Advisor at ActionAid told Devex. “From what I’ve seen he seems like a natural choice and has quite a lot of experience in the developing world.”

Parliamentary undersecretary of state for international development

James Wharton, member of the Parliament

Photo by: DfID / CC BY

The new Parliamentary undersecretary of state for international development is a relative newcomer to global development, but he’s already busy making up for lost time with a visit to DfID projects in Kenya, a DfID spokesperson told Devex — the same reason he was unavailable to speak to Devex about the new role.

A loyal and consistent Conservative and former solicitor who rarely votes against party lines, Wharton’s rhetoric on aid so far tracks closely to Patel’s, with a special focus on trade and advancing the U.K.’s security interests abroad. Before his appointment, Wharton was Parliamentary undersecretary of state for communities and local government.

Wharton’s development experience includes a trip with International Alert to Sri Lanka in 2012, in the wake of the country’s civil war. After multiple visits to the region, Wharton said he hoped engagement would strengthen ties between the U.K. and Sri Lanka and aid the process of conflict resolution.

Reflecting on the visit, Wharton told the Telegraph, “There are areas that haven’t been resolved, and areas where people have irreconcilable differences but there are a large number of areas where people could work together to make life better for the people in Sri Lanka.”

Wharton later highlighted the importance of strengthening ties to Sri Lanka for the sake of the U.K.’s manufacturing interests, a view that jibes well with Patel’s hope to leverage aid for better trade deals in the uncertain post-Brexit climate.

“The business connection is only something I realized after getting involved when I was out there and came across various British companies that were doing work,” he told the Telegraph.

“[Retail department store] Marks & Spencer are manufacturing most of their garments in Sri Lanka, there are companies in my patch up here that do a lot of work out there, engineering and things.”

Wharton focused on energy during his recent trip to Kenya, where he also met with leaders to discuss how the two countries can advance their trade relationship in order to boost economic growth and job creation.

Minister of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs

Baroness Joyce Anelay

Photo by: Foreign & Commonwealth Office / CC BY

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DfID will share Baroness Joyce Anelay of St. Johns as minister of state for both departments. Anelay was appointed in 2014 to minister of state for the Commonwealth and the United Nations at the FCO, and received new DfID responsibilities under May’s government.

Anelay, who is a formidable voice on humanitarian issues both in the House of Lords and on her social media accounts, also brings to the board a special interest in conflict mitigation. She holds the post of the prime minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict.

As aid practitioners eagerly wait to see whether Patel will take up former DfID chief Justine Greening’s mantle of promoting women and girls in aid programming, some are encouraged by Anelay’s work advocating for a greater role for women in brokering peace in conflict situations.

“The U.K. leads the world in urging greater women’s participation in all aspects of peace and security, tackling sexual violence in conflict and promoting human rights, but to be successful, concerted international efforts are needed,” she in a statement following a visit to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna, Austria, last month.

Shadow secretary of state for international development

Kate Osamor,  member of Parliament

Photo by: Kate Osamor website

The opposition Labour Party didn’t escape the government reshuffle unscathed. Diane Abbott was replaced as shadow secretary for international development with Kate Osamor, relative newcomer to government.

Asked what’s been most challenging in the transition to the role, Osamor said Brexit has brought a lot of uncertainty to U.K. aid. “I’m concerned that any economic stimulus package envisaged by this government might involve a diversion of funds from the DfID budget,” she told Devex.

“DfID programs are outward facing by nature, the government needs to support and stimulate the economy in the wake of the EU referendum but also ensure the budget for DfID is used to fund development,” she said, in reference to Patel’s stated intention to use aid for trade purposes.

Elected to Parliament for the first time last year, Osamor, a former community and trade union activist, worked in health care before her election. She also serves as shadow minister for women and equalities.

“In my view, the most pressing issues in international development today are the global response to the migrant crisis and refugees; gender and development; trafficking and [female genital mutilation]; access to education; health and transparency in aid expenditure,” she said.

Also high on Osamor’s list of priorities, she told Devex, will be discouraging DfID’s leaders from “carving out sections of the aid budget for trade and corporate finance,” which she said could diminish the U.K.’s reputation as an aid leader and “threatens the capacity of some of the world’s most vulnerable economies to provide social services for their people.”

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

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former 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.