Matthew Rycroft has undertaken some challenging foreign policy roles in government, from helping end the war in Bosnia to facing down Russia in the UN security council. As he settles into his new role as permanent secretary of the Department for International Development he speaks to Richard Johnstone about the need for closer links with other departments, and the importance of showing what’s possible through the international aid budget
Photography by Baldo Sciacca
Matthew Rycroft is still settling into his office at the Department for International Development when CSW visits him at 22 Whitehall. The permanent secretary has just visited the government art collection to pick some new pieces for his office. He’s keeping some of the art chosen by his predecessor but adding his own choices to put his own stamp on the office he’s been occupying since January. This reflects the approach he’s taking to the department itself: he says that even from his old post in New York – where he was serving as the UK’s representative to the UN – it was clear the department was well-led and high performing. Rather than “throw everything up and start again”, Rycroft’s aim is to build on that strong base to create a department better connected with the rest of Whitehall, and to demonstrate the importance of international aid to a sceptical British public.
Rycroft took on the top post in the department in January, after a career spent in foreign affairs across government, starting in the Foreign Office in 1989 at a time when global history was being made on a near-daily basis.
“My very first job in the civil service was as the assistant desk officer for NATO in the Foreign Office, and it was just at the end of the Cold War,” he recalls. “By chance, we hosted a NATO summit in London, in Lancaster House, and I was the sort of deputy-assistant-junior-tea-making-summit-organiser. I remember how exciting it was to be in Lancaster House when the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher at the time, and [then West German chancellor] Helmut Kohl and people like that, were coming in and catching glimpses of them.
“I really got a buzz out of being involved in something that was making the news and in a small way having an influence on history. And if you work in the civil service, that is what you do every day.”
“One of the big challenges of this job is to do an even better job of communicating why it is the right thing to do to be spending all this money on foreign aid”
After the intoxication of those early experiences, Rycroft’s subsequent jobs in foreign affairs and diplomacy have been close to history, including working as an official at the landmark 1995 Dayton talks that ended the conflict in the former Yugoslavia as well as being the UK’s ambassador to the United Nations for three years until January.
Early in his career, the Dayton talks represented “quite a formative experience in terms of seeing how negotiation works”, Rycroft recalls.
“[US special envoy] Dick Holbrooke did a brilliant job, he got these fighting parties to come together and stop the war and negotiated a peace,” recalls Rycroft. “I think it was about three to four weeks, and the whole point was it was in the middle of nowhere – it was an American air force base in Dayton, Ohio, chosen because it was big enough to house the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Croats, and the Bosnian Serbs, the Croats themselves, and the international community as well, and just got those leaders there and kept them there until they did the deal. A very effective bit of diplomacy.”
History makes you think an agreement to end the war in Bosnia was inevitable, he says. “But actually at the time it didn’t feel inevitable and it wasn’t inevitable, those talks could have failed as many previous talks had. So it was a ringside seat.”
Rycroft’s career has not been short of ringside seats. Before returning to London to head up DfID, his three-year spell as the UK’s ambassador to the UN saw him lead the UK’s international diplomatic efforts on issues such as ending the Syrian civil war and American plans to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Indeed, the latter saw him depicted as a weasel in the New York Post for condemning the move.
The UK’s role as one of the five permanent members of the security council “is a huge responsibility but a great honour”, says Rycroft. Reflecting on the role six months removed from the post, he criticises what he calls Russia’s abuse of that power in stopping the security council taking action against Syrian president Bashar Assad.
“Defending Assad over the use of chemical weapons, for instance – it was incredible and very sad to see the lengths that the Russians went to to justify their support for Assad,” he says. “It went as far as them degenerating the bits of the UN that had been set up to investigate who had been responsible, and that is a very short-sighted thing for Russia to do.”
Despite the frustrations, Rycroft recalls many proud moments from his time in New York. “I had a fantastic team there and we did get some real results,” he says.
“I think my proudest moment was keeping the security council together on issues where the UK leads and where we can really make a difference.
“Issues like Somalia, which is a success story. You don’t hear about it precisely because it is a success story – there used to be a war, there is a fragile peace and there is a peacekeeping mission. There is a huge amount of aid going in and the UK has led the international effort on that and there’s a lot of work behind the scenes.”
This UN experience makes Rycroft different from previous DfID perm secs, says Alex Thier, executive director at the Overseas Development Institute.
“He comes from an unusual background for a DfID permanent secretary, having been the UK ambassador to the United Nations at the time of creating the Sustainable Development Goals [the landmark 17 international development priorities agreed by the UN].
“That is an enormous asset to DfID because it brings somebody who understands how the global machinery not only works, but how it can actually be moved in a positive direction.”
Thier highlights “some really big issues on the global plate”, from fragility to the impact of technology on global development, as well as the mission to end extreme poverty, to the need for a longstanding coalition to address climate change.
All these need vison and resource – both financial and diplomatic. “There’s incredible value to using the position that DfID has, and can have, in the world to drive bigger changes beyond what they can accomplish with their own budget. That is about diplomacy, it is about creative finance, and making sure they are leveraging their resources,” Thier says.
“From my discussions with Matthew so far, and what I have seen the department come out with, it is clear they are already starting to think in that direction and that really increases the power and ability of DfID and the UK government more broadly to get some big things done.”
For his part, Rycroft says DfID’s global reputation for professionalism and expertise was clear from New York before he was named as the permanent replacement for former perm sec Mark Lowcock, taking over from interim chief Nick Dyer.
“There aren’t that many people [in DfID] who are civil servants who happen to be doing development – they tend to be doing development and just happen to be a civil servant at the moment.”
There are both upsides and drawbacks to this. “There’s a huge positive to that mission and that motivation,” he says. “I then discovered there’s a flip side to that and there’s a certain sense of insularity that comes with that motivation, a sense of difference and not that much join-up with the rest of the civil service.”
As a result, Rycroft is working to guide DfID from being “in a bubble on our own at the edge of government” into the centre as it undertakes its own historic work, as one of a handful of governments to meet the UN commitment to spend 0.7% of gross domestic product on overseas development assistance (ODA).
“I do think that although we have people with experience from outside DfID, on the whole that experience comes from elsewhere in the aid sector – Oxfam, Save the Children or whoever – rather than from elsewhere in Whitehall or the private sector,” he says. “So one of my early priorities is to shake up that mix a little bit and add, to the development expertise, people a little bit more like myself, who have got that Whitehall background.”
“There aren’t that many people In DfID who are civil servants who happen to be doing development – they tend to be doing development and just happen to be a civil servant at the moment”
There are two reasons why this is particularly crucial, Rycroft argues – firstly the need to make every pound of taxpayers’ money work harder for the UK national interest after Brexit, as well as the need for DfID to do more to oversee the effectiveness of all international aid spending, including the money spent by other departments.
Spending 0.7% of GDP on aid translates to around £14bn a year, of which DfID spends roughly £10bn, with the other £4bn spent by different departments and through pooled funds.
In June, the International Development Select Committee highlighted concerns over whether money spent outside DfID is being subjected to the same rigorous evaluation as that spent by the department. Committee chair Stephen Twigg said spreading ODA spending across government created potential for new partnerships in aid delivery, but also risked undermining its quality. “We are concerned at the risks this poses to policy coherence, effective oversight and transparency,” he warned. “We are also concerned about the uneven focus on poverty reduction in programmes administered outside DfID.”
Rycroft says that tightening up links with other departments is “a high priority” for him and his secretary of state Penny Mordaunt.
It is right, he says, that other departments spend funds classed as ODA, “because they have areas of expertise and other interests, and all of it should end up to be something that is more of the sum of its parts”. But he adds that DfID wants to ensure the discipline applied to its own spending is in place elsewhere.
“I wouldn’t want anyone in DfID to think that the right answer is for us to spend 100% of ODA. That would be the wrong answer,” says Rycroft, “The right answer is for it to be distributed but for there to be systems in place to allow everyone to rise up to the levels of the best in terms of value for money and coherence, and to make sure that we’re all doing it with British interests in mind.
“We in DfID are very used to spending it in a value-for-money and a coherent way, and we have expertise and systems that allow us to measure what we’re doing. We want to put all of that expertise and all of these systems at the service of everyone else who is spending ODA. We encourage departments to be open to that relationship with DfID, and some of them are and some of them aren’t. We want everyone to benefit from the things we do.”
However, such an approach does not mean diluting DfID’s expertise, or even – as is often speculated – merging it with other departments.
Rycroft was in the Foreign Office in 1997 when the incoming Labour government spun the international development unit out into a standalone department and he reflects the switch has given international development more prominence.
“I’m really delighted to be the permanent secretary of a department which, although it is relatively young compared to others, it has now done 21 years and has established itself as a separate, independent department of state working alongside all the others, I hope, in an effective and collaborate way.”
Other countries split the intertwined responsibilities of foreign affairs, international trade and overseas development aid differently, and alternatives to DfID have come into sharper focus amid Brexit as ministers consider how best to create Global Britain.
Rycroft’s diplomacy is clear when he notes that he “will do whatever the government of the day so decides” on departmental structures, but adds: “I think we have got a very good set up with development and humanitarian [work] in one place, working incredibly closely with the Department for International Trade and others.
“The system is one which is good for international development, good for the UK and my job is to make it work ever more effectively, and that is what we’re trying to do.”
Demonstrating the effectiveness of international aid spending is a priority for Rycroft, who notes the British public is not quite as committed to the 0.7% pledge as major political parties in parliament currently are.
“Coming back and starting the job, you realise that although all the main political parties agree about the 0.7% commitment, actually the British people have very varied views about it, and there is a lot of scepticism about international development. One of the big challenges of this job is to do an even better job of communicating to the British people why it is the right thing to do to be spending all this money on foreign aid,” he says.
Rycroft argues there is essentially a three-way split in opinion – those who will never support aid abroad; those who support the current approach; and those, which Rycroft estimates at about a third of the population, who are open to persuasion but not currently convinced.
“When you ask them why not, they say they don’t think it works – the scale of the problems are too big so no matter how much we do, we will never solve them. Or they think the whole thing is corrupt and money never ends up where it should. Those are both valid criticisms and we need to address them.”
“It would be fair to assume there will be a high degree of scrutiny. We have to make sure we are able to live with that scrutiny”
To this end, the department is piloting a new communication project in the West Midlands called Aid Works to demonstrate the effectiveness of spending by highlighting the role of local people in aid.
“What we’ve done so far is connect people in that region with aid workers who are returning from deploying in an emergency medical team, or other voices that will have resonance, and trying to get those individual stories about what British aid has been doing in their name.”
It is too early to tell if this is making a difference, but Rycroft says it is the right thing to foster deeper engagement.
But doesn’t this show that 0.7% is in fact a target on DfID’s back? There are never-ending headlines lambasting supposedly wasteful aid spending, and Rycroft’s predecessors have faced personal opprobrium just for overseeing the system. Does the department feel under siege?
“There’s a lot of scrutiny of the department, I think particularly in recent years since the 0.7% became achieved and legislated for, and as we went up to 0.7% when there was a very significant increase in the aid budgets every year. Rightly that brought significant additional oversight from parliament and the media.
“Now that we’ve achieved the 0.7% target, the aid budget goes up only to the extent the British economy goes up. But I think it would be fair to assume there will be a high degree of scrutiny continuing, and so there should. We have to make sure that we are able to live with that scrutiny and use that to drive us to ever better performance.”
Surely this affects morale in the department’s London base and its joint headquarters in East Kilbride, near Glasgow? “There have been difficult times for the department, and some of the reputational risk that we carry is a burden,” he acknowledges. “But people passionately believe in the mission of the department and are determined to do a better job of explaining to the British people why we do that.”
If Rycroft can persuade the British people to support international aid, and DfID’s own role in that vital work, that could probably be described as another historic step in a career already full of landmarks.
After joining the Foreign Office in 1989, Rycroft worked both at the department’s NATO desk at the time of the fall of the Iron Curtain, as well as the UN in Geneva, before working for four years in the British Embassy in Paris.
Upon returning to the FCO in London, he headed to department’s political section responsible for the Eastern Adriatic in the FCO, leading to his role as part of the British delegation to the Dayton peace talks for Bosnia.
This was followed by two years in the FCO’s policy planning staff covering European and transatlantic issues, before he joined the British Embassy in Washington DC, following US domestic politics from 1998 to 2002. After this post, Rycroft was private secretary to the prime minister for foreign affairs, before being posted from 2005 as UK ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina – a posting where he learnt Bosnian.
“I learnt it full time for six months,” he says. “I left Downing Street and I had a six-month gap from the end of that job and the start of the next job and something the Foreign Office does very well is really invest in language skills. And it works, because in six months you can go from nothing to being able to speak with anyone, and that is what you have got to do if you want to make a real connection with people and get under the skin of the country.”
Returning to London in 2008, Rycroft was the FCO’s Europe director, and then FCO chief operating officer, before being named the UK’s ambassador to the UN, a post he held from April 2015 until January this year.