LIVERPOOL, United Kingdom — If one were to read about the life of Rory Stewart, they would find it hard not to find tinges of T.E. Lawrence in his exploits; such is the color and vigor of his career. After briefly serving in the military, Stewart joined the British diplomatic service and served in Indonesia, Montenegro and more notably Iraq as deputy governor of two provinces in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. After this, he famously embarked on a 21-month walk across Asia, crossing countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and India. His subsequent work in jointly setting up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation with then-Prince Charles was his first notable charitable endeavor.
Founded in 2005, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation is an NGO with the objective of reviving historic areas and crafts and in doing so, driving economic development through supporting local artisans; here, Stewart spent a few years in Afghanistan managing the restoration of historic buildings in Kabul. Between the years 2010 and 2019, he became a prominent figure in British politics as an MP holding several ministerial positions, including Minister of State for International Development and standing in the London Mayoral election. These days he spends his time running the chart-topping podcast, The Rest Is Politics and fighting global poverty as the President of GiveDirectly.
Advocate for the 0.7% Commitment
Stewart’s appointment as Secretary of State for International Development was met with praise from aid charities. While in the position he was a staunch supporter of maintaining the U.K.’s commitment to spend 0.7% of its GNI in foreign aid, saying that it was important in putting “Britain on the world stage again” and making a “new relationship with the world.”
In August 2022 Rory Stewart launched his damning condemnation of the government cutting its aid commitment to 0.5% of GNI when he labeled the action as “shameful.” Amid the cuts, he also expressed concerns about Britain squandering its position in Africa and argued the case for a geopolitical advantage to be gained by continuing support to the continent.
Against the DfID-FCO Merger
In a bid to streamline operations, in June 2020 the government announced the merger of the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). While the DfID’s aims were geared towards poverty reduction, the FCO’s aims lay more towards matters that serve British interests. The move was made to ensure aid expenditure better complemented British interests; however, many at the time feared this would hamper global poverty reduction efforts and tarnish the U.K.’s long-built legacy as an aid leader. Stewart echoed these concerns, urging that the move would damage both traditional FCO and DfID aims.
At the time, Stewart suggested that if the merger were to go ahead, instead of having foreign office officials lead development programs, deeply informed development experts with greater levels of local knowledge should lead development programs.
“Wasteful and Paternalistic”
Stewart is not in favor of the condescending nature of “paternalistic” U.K. aid programs in which the donor (the U.K. government) decides what may or may be beneficial for recipient countries. Moreover, he believes the programs are fundamentally “wasteful” due to the indirectness of the aid’s impact; he uses the example of various households even within a community having unique needs but receiving blanket solutions that fail to directly address individuals’ specific needs. Rather, he suggests giving money directly to those in need, a belief that forms the ethos of GiveDirectly.
Stewart is the president of GiveDirectly, a non-profit that gives cash donations directly to people to give recipients the “dignity” of making their own choices. It operates mainly in Africa and has distributed over $700 million directly to those in need since 2009. The organization promotes the increased efficacy of giving those in need the freedom of choice to invest in ways that directly suit their own needs. It is also conscious of negative preconceptions the general public might have regarding recipients inefficiently spending donations; to counteract such beliefs they cite research showing that money ends up being spent on things such as livestock, school fees and transportation.
“Giving cash to people is one of the most efficient and effective ways of giving support,” said Stewart in a CNN interview. Stewart celebrates mobile money for its capability of putting money directly into the hands of people. So much so that, according to him, GiveDirectly issues mobile phones to those without to facilitate mobile money.
Right from the start of his career, Rory Stewart has long been a stalwart of global aid and development. He has always been at the forefront of issues and remains an opinionated and trusted figure in the area. While he bemoans a widespread “sense of despair” towards addressing poverty, he remains optimistic about overcoming the issue.
– Sabique Sadique