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Benedict Rogers: Why aid matters - a review of Andrew Mitchell's new paper

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

Screen shot 2013-07-26 at 14.09.53Since Andrew Mitchell left the Department for International Development in the reshuffle last September, the profile of international development in Government, and within the Conservative Party, has fallen. The cause of the world's poor has not had a champion at the heart of Government with the skills, knowledge, passion, personal dedication and energy of Andrew Mitchell. For all her best efforts, and however unfair this may be, Justine Greening has been hampered by a perception that she did not want the job, does not like the job, and is only interested in cutting programmes. 

But outside Government, Mitchell has far from abandoned the cause. In a powerful recent paper, published by the Legatum Institute and titled "A Safer and More Prosperous World: Why Aid Really Matters in an Age of Austerity", he sets out a concise but passionate case for a Conservative approach to international aid. It is a paper that every Conservative, and everyone working in the aid sector, should read. It is not lengthy. Indeed, its strength is in its brevity and the force of arguments conveyed in a mere 25 short pages.

Mitchell begins the first chapter stating what we all know, or ought to, but often forget. "Britain's international development policies are not about soft-hearted altruism," he writes. "They are a clear and hard-headed approach to our own security and prosperity". I have long argued that we need to make the case for international development, as well as for promoting freedom and human rights around the world, not only in moral terms but also as a matter of self-interest. Ten years ago, in a paper called 'New Ground', James Mawdsley and I made precisely this argument. Mitchell rightly notes that at a time when other areas of public expenditure are being cut, and British taxpayers are struggling to make ends meet, people want to know whether we get value for money and clear results from aid expenditure. "Are funds used for the best possible advantage? Is it aid and development for the benefit of Britain as well as from Britain?," he asks.

He argues firstly that "there is clear evidence that aid and development works". Recent years have seen more than 500 million people lifted out of poverty, millions more children in school, and child mortality rates plummet, as a result of aid increases, debt cancellation and economic growth. "Incredible improvements such as these are sometimes overlooked," he notes. As a result of a major new global initiative for vaccinations, which he introduced in 2011, "Britain's contribution alone will ensure that a child is vaccinated every two seconds and that the life of a child is saved every two minutes (during the five years of this Parliament) from diseases which no longer kill children in Britain". 

DFID's programme, however, is not just about giving out money. It is also about supporting good governance and institutions to help developing countries grow into stable, free and prosperous societies, and combating conflict. It is about "building a rule of law that treats all citizens equally and assures foreign investors that they will be dealt with fairly and according to transparent rules, not at the whim of a powerful politician or warlord; supporting openness and transparency, zero tolerance of corruption". These are, he says, "as essential as more traditional aid interventions such as clean water and sanitation, or feeder roads along which agricultural good can get to market."

Yet the challenges remain immense. Despite the "small miracles" created by development aid "well spent", Mitchell notes that still today 67 million children do not go to school. "A girl born tonight in South Sudan is statistically more likely to die in childbirth than to complete her primary school education", he writes.

During his time working on international development, in Opposition and then in Government, Mitchell became a true believer in the cause. I first met him shortly after he had been appointed Shadow Secretary of State, and I must admit I was unsure. He did not have a background on aid, and I was unconvinced as to whether he really cared. Within a short time, however, and over the past seven years, I became very convinced. We travelled together in 2007 to the Thailand-Burma border, and he was true to his word in consistently speaking up for the people of Burma ever since. He has done more than any other senior Conservative to change the narrative and, more importantly, change the thinking about international development. The "new agenda for international development" which he says in his pamphlet has "emerged" has been largely driven by him. "The old certainties of the left - that development is about spending taxpayers' money - or of the right - that all funds end up in the Swiss Bank accounts of corrupt leaders - has made way for common ground which, to a greater or lesser extent, commands support among the many people who take an interest and who are not wholly ideologically opposed", he concludes.

That "new agenda" is one which combines the moral case with self-interest, generosity with a relentless focus on results, provision of aid with a focus on the causes of poverty and long-term remedies. It is an agenda which highlights conflict, human rights, democracy, the rule of law and the free market as all being crucial elements in a development approach. As I have argued before, dictators are the cause of most of the world's poverty: North Korea, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Burma are just some of the examples of the poorest parts of the world where poverty has been caused by dictatorships' economic mismanagement, oppression and war against their own people. Refugees and internally displaced people fleeing their homes in some of these countries are fleeing the consequences of dictatorship. 

As Mitchell argues, "we have refused to balance the books on the back of the world's poor", an approach that is in Britain's best traditions. "Britain has a proud history of going to the assistance of those who are suffering, whether it is campaigning to abolish slavery in the nineteenth century, the fight against fascism in the twentieth century, or 'making poverty history' in the twenty-first century." It is to that sense of history that Mitchell appeals so powerfully. When the history of this Government comes to be written, it must be for his contribution to the world's poorest that Andrew Mitchell should be remembered. I hope he will continue to make a major contribution to this area of policy for a long time to come.


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