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Aid Organisations Welcome New Development Chief

Roger Hamilton-Martin is a free lance journalist based in London

LONDON, May 9 2019 (IPS) - International aid organisations have reacted positively to the appointment of new UK International Secretary of State for Development, Rory Stewart.

Stewart was appointed by UK Prime Minister Theresa May on 1 May in a cabinet reshuffle that saw him switched out from his position as the UK’s Minister for Prisons. As Secretary of State, Stewart will run the Department for International Development (DfID).

The DfID administers an annual budget of 0.7% of gross national income (GNI), or around £14bn, covering UK international aid for education, health, social services, water supply and sanitation, government and civil society initiatives, environmental protection and humanitarian assistance.

Christian Aid’s head of UK advocacy Tom Viita said that “any modern DfID Secretary needs to understand the issues of climate change, conflict and international diplomacy and thankfully Rory Stewart has an excellent grasp of these crucial subjects.

“The first item on his to-do list must be the global climate emergency that is affecting the world’s poor from Mozambique to Myanmar.”

In remarks on the day of his appointment, Stewart reflected this concern, stating that “of course there is… a “climate emergency.” Ice shelves are melting at ten times their predicted rate. 39 million acres of tropical forests were lost in 2017 alone, and we risk losing more than a third of the species on earth by 2050.”

Stewart said the government “must be radical on the environment because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s popular.”

Brazilian firefighters responding to storm-ravaged Mozambique

“I would argue that spending, not 7%, not 1%, but 0.7% of your GDP on that kind of issue really makes a difference, not just to the planet but to you and me,” he said.

Christine Allen, Director of Catholic aid agency CAFOD, said it was “an incredibly important time” for Stewart to be joining DFID, given the many global crises currently being faced by aid agencies.

“We’re looking forward to working with him to help tackle the fundamental causes of poverty, inequality and climate degradation,” she added.

Meanwhile an Oxfam spokesperson said Stewart “has a strong track record on foreign affairs,” and that the organisation is “hopeful that, as International Development Secretary, [he] will play a key role in maintaining Britain’s world-leading role in the fight to end poverty.”

Stewart brings significant experience in international affairs to the role, in particular the Middle East. The son of diplomat Brian Stewart, he was briefly commissioned as a second lieutenant in the British Army in 1991, before joining the Foreign Office. He served in the British Embassy in Indonesia from 1997-1999, and at 26 was appointed the British Representative to Montenegro.

Between 2000 and 2002, Stewart walked on foot across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, a journey of 6000 miles. His walk across Afghanistan shortly after the US invasion is described in his book, The Places in Between.

He subsequently worked for the UK government’s administration of Iraq following the invasion in 2003. Stewart has written in criticism of the Iraq invasion and occupation, noting in 2013 that “I still find the scale of our failure astonishing.”

Stewart lived in Kabul from 2006-2008. There he founded the Turquoise Mountain, a non-profit investing in Afghanistan’s traditional crafts to preserve cultural heritage and create economic opportunities in the country.

He left Afghanistan to return to the UK and enter politics, and was elected the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border in May 2010 – shortly after Brad Pitt’s film company bought the rights to tell the story of his life in a biopic.

Stewart takes over at DfID from Penny Mordaunt MP, who was given the role of Secretary of State for Defence. The cabinet reshuffle was triggered by the sacking of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, who was accused by the Prime Minister of leaking information to the press from a meeting of the National Security Council.

The leak, made to the Telegraph, concerned UK government plans to involve Chinese state company Huawei in the UK’s proposed 5G communications network.

Stewart previously served briefly as a Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and as a joint Minister of State for the Department for International Development.

Other UK aid agencies also welcomed Stewart’s appointment. Nigel Harris, CEO for Christian poverty charity Tearfund, told IPS that Stewart is taking on his role “at a pivotal moment – a time when it is vital to strengthen the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world.”

The Director of Islamic Relief UK, Tufail Hussain, said Stewart “is a strong supporter of UK aid.” The charity this week launched its Ramadan Appeal with DfID’s support, which will see £2m of the total funds raised for the appeal matched by the UK Government. The money will go towards helping people in Ethiopia to access water.

While Stewart has stated he is committed to the role, he has expressed even higher ambitions. Only days after his appointment, he said “yes” when asked if he would declare his candidacy to replace Prime Minister Theresa May if she leaves her role as Prime Minister, an eventuality that appears increasingly likely.

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