It’s strange to think that we’ve had as many international development secretaries in 2019 as there have been Marvel movies.
We’ve had Captain Mordaunt show up all the lads, before Rory Stewart: Far From Home told the story of one man’s fresh faced attempt to lead the Avengers after the ousting of Iron May. But Wednesday was the Endgame: With one click of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fingers, half the cabinet disappeared into dust.
And emerging from a reset political landscape, a little known MP from Reading West has taken on one of the most important jobs in government.
Alok Sharma has been appointed the third Secretary of State for International Development this year — and fifth in four years — tasked with the vital mission of overseeing and protecting Britain’s lifesaving UK aid budget.
Born in Agra, India, Sharma moved to Reading with his family as a child. He is a former accountant who cut his teeth in the corporate finance sector before becoming an MP in the 2010 election in his hometown constituency, Reading West.
Since the Brexit referendum, he’s slowly risen through the ranks of government: in ministerial positions on employment and housing briefs, including as part of the response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and as a minister for Asia and the Pacific at the Foreign Office.
Hugely honoured to be appointed Secretary of State for @DFID_UK by Prime Minister @BorisJohnson - straight into briefings at the department with the brilliant Permanent Secretary @MatthewRycroft1 who I had the pleasure to work with @foreignoffice pic.twitter.com/hnW2t8DQPN— Alok Sharma (@AlokSharma_RDG) July 24, 2019
That budget comes from the Department for International Development (DfID), founded as an independent department in 1997 to empower people across the world to lift themselves out of extreme poverty, officially defined as living on less than $1.90 (£1.50) a day.
Britain is legally required to spend 0.7% of its gross national income (GNI) on UK aid. It makes the UK a world leader in development, with DfID one of the most effective and transparent spenders of aid on the planet.
And it does some seriously impactful work: It’s saved the lives of an estimated 990,000 children by providing vaccines against deadly diseases; put 14 million kids through school; and helped get 23 million women and girls access to modern contraception.
Brilliant to hear from our new Secretary of State @AlokSharma_RDG about how @DFID_UK can project 🇬🇧’s values across the 🌍 + how our fantastic staff are ambassadors for #GlobalBritain.— Matthew Rycroft (@MatthewRycroft1) July 25, 2019
Looking forward to working together to transform lives with #UKaidpic.twitter.com/utRFW06m3s
The 51-year-old Sharma therefore inherits a great responsibility: tackling the shocking inequality that leaves 736 million people living in extreme poverty — and, in accordance with the targets agreed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, to end it completely by 2030.
“I am delighted to have been appointed international development secretary,” Sharma said in a statement. “We will work across the whole of government to deliver Brexit and make sure UK aid is tackling global challenges that affect us all, such as climate change, disease, and humanitarian disasters.
“Investing 0.7% of GNI on international development shows we are an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain that is fully engaged with the world,” he added.
“I am committed to transforming the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, giving them access to quality education and jobs, while promoting Britain’s economic, security, and foreign interests.”
The global aid community breathes a huge sigh of relief as @DFID_UK survives another day, with the appointment of @AlokSharma_RDG and SoS.— Susannah Hares (@Fihi_maFihi) July 24, 2019
DFID is the best aid agency in the world and should be a huge source of national pride.
His appointment alone is encouraging. It was feared that Johnson might remove the position as a cabinet post, and defer DfID to the control of either the Foreign Office or the Department for International Trade. That would have compromised DfID’s central mission — to alleviate poverty — and could mean UK aid spending becomes less transparent and less effective to achieve that objective.
But with prominent sceptics of aid spending now occupying the corridors of power — most notably, Jacob Rees-Mogg (leader of the house); Dominic Raab (foreign secretary); Priti Patel (home secretary), and Johnson himself — DfID’s independence and aid itself might still be under threat.
“We know that aid is spent most effectively and transparently through DfID, and we urge Sharma to fight for it to remain an independent department,” said David Westwood, director of policy and programmes at World Vision UK.
“Sharma has a real opportunity to ensure that UK aid continues to prioritise the world’s most vulnerable children and their communities — especially in fragile and emergency contexts,” he added. “It is crucial that he maintains the 0.7% aid budget, and puts a focus on the causes of humanitarian emergencies such as conflict and the climate crisis.”