The curious appointment of Priti Patel to the DFID

21 Aug 2016

The prospect of Brexit has thrown up major questions around Britain’s future in the world.  Early indications have been drawn from Theresa May’s cabinet re-shuffle.  The appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary raised eyebrows, but perhaps even more curious was the appointment of Priti Patel as Secretary for International Development.


A critic of her new department in the past, many were left pondering the future of DFID now she is at the reigns.  As a centrepiece of David Cameron’s vision for the world, the future of the department could be symbolic of how Britain positions itself in the world. 


It was widely reported that Patel had called for the abolition of the DFID.  This would likely have sent shivers down the spine of many in the development industry who rely on the department’s funding. 


However, there is cause for optimism for the industry.  Mrs Patel’s two immediate predecessors surprised many observers with their commitment and enthusiasm for their position. Andrew Mitchell had little development experience, and it was thought that Justine Greening, to put it bluntly, did not want the job. Yet their time in office did not necessarily justify these doubts.


It must be said that Patel’s comments do appear to have been either misrepresented or misunderstood.  Her call the creation of a Department for International Trade and Development would mean abolishing DFID itself, in the sense that it would not exist as an independent institution.  However, it’s work would continue, albeit under a different guise.  Patel’s pledge to use aid to leverage for trade shows that this will likely be the focus of development spending, no matter what the structure of the department is.  This does appear to entail the end of foreign aid, but rather a different approach to funding and encouraging global development.


Rumours abound that there is a ‘turf war’ between the departments responsible for Brexit.  Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis are said to be at loggerheads over who has what powers and responsibilities.  With tension over the future of these departments, DFID’s future is unlikely to be Theresa May’s top priority.  In any case, Patel has not got her wish to see Development and Trade bound to one department, as Fox now takes charge of this. 


The future is hard to predict and we may be set for some changes at DFID.  However, a drastic transformation in Britain’s role in global development should not be seen as a foregone conclusion.  If we can take this as indicative of our future role in the world, we can expect a gradual evolution instead of a drastic revolution.



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