DFID and leadership change: What can we expect?

Priti Patel’s successor as Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mourdant, has told us “I believe in aid”, signalling a welcome re-affirmation of the work of the department she leads following a crisis of trust.  She has also points out that “Aid allows us to influence and shape the world around us”: important for a Britain that needs to reposition for trade.  So what can we expect from DFID under Penny Mourdaunt?  James Inkles explores this question in his latest blog:


Penny Mordaunt: Who is she and what can we expect? by James Inkles

Penny Mordaunt has been appointed the new head of the Department for International Development after a tumultuous week which saw it dominate the headlines. Priti Patel’s resignation after being found to have had a series of meetings with the Israeli government without notifying the Foreign Office left a lot of questions about who would take over the mantel at DFID. We now have our answer, but the question still remains, what can we expect?

Unlike Priti Patel before her, Mordaunt does not lack experience in international development. She has often claimed that her interest in politics stems from her time spent working in hospitals and orphanages in post-revolutionary Romania during her gap year. Additionally, Ms Mordaunt worked in the charity sector as a director of the Big Lottery Fund and Diabetes UK. She also holds an extensive military background being the daughter of a former Paratrooper, herself being a Royal Navy Reservist. For this reason, she was originally tipped as a frontrunner for the position of Secretary of Defence after Michael Fallon’s resignation. This posting was ultimately given to Gavin Williamson. She has been warmly received by the likes of Tamsyn Barton of Bond.org, Mark Goldring of Oxfam and Kevin Watkins of Save the Children. This is not unusual when a new DfiD head is appointed, but her background and experience will certainly go some way to easing some of the aid communities’ worries. Their statements have however called for Ms Mordaunt to reiterate hers and her department’s commitment to UK aid efforts, and the goals and principles of her posting.

Under David Cameron’s leadership, previous DFID head Justine Greening introduced the pledge to commit 0.7% of the UK’s Gross National Income on International Aid. Patel reiterated this commitment during her tenure, and Mordaunt previously backed the move back in 2014 but has not recommitted to this pledge since. Many in the Conservative party are now calling for the 0.7% pledge to be scrapped, or at least the terms of the pledge renegotiated. This has put a considerable spotlight on Penny, as it did also Priti Patel. The Labour party’s shadow International Development secretary Kate Osamor has added her voice to the calls for Ms Mordaunt to commit to the DFID project, and to oppose those who want to see the department merge with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. On her predecessor, Stephen Bush of the New Statesman has stated that “there will be few tears shed for the loss of Patel” who was seen as a sceptic of the aid budget and damaging to its project. Because of statements like these, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, has asked Ms Mordaunt to distance herself from her predecessor and lead the department in the right direction.

The reasons surrounding Mrs Patel’s sacking also call into question whether there is a hidden agenda in Mordaunt’s appointment. Primarily, Mrs Patel resigned due to undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials and lobbyists. However, details have emerged from numerous sources, which indicate that these meetings, contrary to Priti Patel’s claims, were by no means innocuous and humanitarian in their agenda. Jonathan Cook’s brilliant write up of these claims explains the allegations in full, but to paraphrase, evidence suggests Mrs Patel planned to divert part of the very limited international aid budget, a budget that had to cut millions of pounds of funding for Palestinian Aid, to the Israeli military. In addition to this, claims also suggest that the British Government and Theresa May were fully aware of these meetings, and agreed to their aims, Mrs Patel’s only discretion being caught. If that is the case, then is Ms Mordaunt’s appointment to be just more of the same. Ms Mordaunt’s extensive military background would suggest that she would have little qualms about using the UK aid budget in the same way Patel had tried. Both women were prominent, outspoken Brexiters and Eurosceptics, and would be eager to form close relationships further afield.

Unease also stems from the fact that many in government and within the media have criticised her appointment over those they see as much more experienced and qualified for the position. Much of this is because, in addition to originally being tipped for the position of Defence Secretary, Ms Mordaunt has never publicly expressed any views or opinions on her new brief. These two factors have led many to worry she will see this position as a stepping stone, as many believe Priti Patel did. Distrust has also formed around an incident in 2016 involving Ms Mordaunt that garnered much media attention. During a BBC television interview Ms Mordaunt wrongly claimed the UK did not have a veto on Turkey’s acceptance into the EU, which Conservative party leader at the time David Cameron was forced to clear up and denounce just an hour later.

In her first interview as the new head of DFID, Ms Mordaunt has stated she wants to continue the work of her predecessor, which infers that she will not be a departure from Ms Patel. She also stresses the need to open up Dfid funding to a wider range of partners. Most notable, and potentially worrying for the international aid community, is her claim that “as we leave the EU we must seize every opportunity to champion democracy and human rights, expand trade with developing countries and build competitive markets to end poverty”. In this case, and in the case which led to Ms Patel’s downfall, EVERY opportunity could mean the types of projects and causes that see the DFID budget used not for international aid programmes, but rather those that might be used, as Ms Mordaunt states, “furthering UK strategic interests”. We have seen similar uses of the UK aid budget over the last few years. In 2015, 19.5% of the Aid Budget was spent outside of DFID, a number that’s expected to rise to around 30% by 2020. Departments chanelling the aid budget include the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence. These departments are typically providing funding to middle-income countries such as China and Brazil, and are not focusing on the least developed countries which are the budgets intended use.

With all this in mind, there is little to suggest Penny Mordaunt is set to buck the trend and lead DFID in a new direction. Ms Mordaunt’s experience in the third sector is refreshing to see and will ease some concerns. However, she has shown little to differentiate herself from her predecessor in terms of her views and opinions on the role. Her and Mrs Patel have very similar voting records, are prominent Brexiters and, although they both stated their commitments to the 0.7% pledge, they have both indicated a willingness to use the aid budget to further the strategic interests of the UK, outside of the department. It is still very early days, and so we cannot for sure what direction Ms Mordaunt will be taking DFID in. For now, all we can do is wait and see what happens next.