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Justine Greening MP: The key question on international aid is this - do you want to shape the world, or be shaped by it?

GREENING JUSTINEThe fifth piece in our series looking at the arguments for and against international aid is by Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for International Development.

This week, the UN announced that the number of refugees fleeing Syria had passed 2 million, 1 million of them children. It is a dreadful reminder that the real victims of Assad’s assault on his own people are the civilians who have had to leave their homes, often with literally no more than the clothes on their backs. These people are utterly reliant on the generosity of neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, and on support from the international community.

Britain can be proud of our role in providing this humanitarian support. We will not forget the plight of refugees. Nor will we stand back and wait for the pressure on surrounding countries to become unbearable as thousands of new people arrive every day needing food, water, shelter and medical attention.

But clearly Britain cannot do this alone. Syrians need the rest of the world to step up to the plate.  That’s why the Prime Minister is using the G20 meetings in Russia today to push for a much more ambitious and coordinated international response.

Since the beginning of the Syria conflict, support from British taxpayers has made a huge difference to people’s lives. Even more importantly, it is helping neighbouring countries to cope with the influx of refugees. That is vital for regional security and firmly in British interests. Antonio Guterres of UNHCR has that we risk failing a generation of Syrian children. The international community must do all it can to stop that from happening.

The recent events in Syria show powerfully why it is important that DFID is working with the Foreign Office to promote peace and stability. No country can develop when it is engaged in conflict. The costs of war for a country’s people and economy are massive and can hold them back for decades. That is why it is right for us to focus an increasing proportion of our development spending in fragile and conflict-affected states like Afghanistan and Somalia.

As I look back over the last year in International Development I am proud that it is under a Conservative Prime Minister that this year the UK is meeting, for the first time ever, the target of spending 0.7% of GNI on international development. In Syria and around the world Britain has helped people get their lives back on track after humanitarian disasters and to build a better future for themselves and their children.

But I have said from the start that I want DFID to have a clear sense of Britain’s national interest. The development budget must be an investment in the future - for the developing world of course, but also for people in Britain. It means shaping a future where Britain benefits from a more stable and secure world and is better placed to share in the economic growth happening in the next wave of emerging economies.

When your budget is protected, you need to work even harder to make sure that every pound counts for the British taxpayer. That is why this year I announced the end of aid to India and South Africa as they have become more capable of financing their own development plans, and suspended aid to Uganda when we had concerns over corruption issues. I also strengthened financial controls, put in place a tougher procurement approach for our suppliers and made sure that ministers now sign off business cases and contracts.

The other big change I wanted to see at DFID was a new focus on economic development. Traditionally development agencies and NGOs were often most comfortable building basic services like water and sanitation. Britain is world class at that kind of work and we will keep doing it.

But to my mind one of the lessons of Labour’s disastrous management of the UK economy was that you can’t focus on the public sector and ignore the private sector. If public services are to thrive you need businesses creating jobs and a robust tax system to ensure a long term funding stream of investment for them.

This is not news to developing country leaders. As Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said last year, “aid is not an alternative to self-sufficiency”.

So I have made it my business to work with business. After all, it will be the emerging economies of developing nations which will be the most important trading partners of the future. That is why over the last few months DFID has opened its doors to the CBI, to retailers, to engineering firms and extractive companies. I think it is right that we help them when they want to improve their value chains to have a bigger development impact, and that we play our role tackling barriers to trade that are stopping them from working in certain countries and creating prosperity there.

British companies have some of the world’s best known brands and some of the most forward-thinking corporate policies, so there is a huge opportunity to help build up responsible trade with the emerging economies. We’re not doing anyone a favour leaving the economic coast clear to those with lower standards than our own.

At the same time DFID has now  teamed up with HMRC to help developing countries build up their own tax bases so that ultimately they can fund their own development. This means the UK provides technical expertise to developing countries to help them establish the tax revenues to invest in their own future – which is exactly what they should be doing.

And of course running through all our work is a focus on women and girls. If they are locked out of education, or work, or decision-making, their potential will be wasted, as no country can lift itself out of poverty if half its population is excluded.

I don’t think it is an option for Britain to shut up shop and disengage from the world around us. Just as you can’t ignore what’s happening in your own neighbourhood outside your front door, as a country Britain can’t ignore what happens around the world.. What happens around the world affects us more now than ever before.

DFID’s work stops people dying from preventable diseases and famine, and provides emergency help following natural disasters, but it is also very much in our national interest to build a more peaceful and stable world.

We can either be involved in the world that we want, and reap the rewards alongside accepting the responsibilities, or sit back and watch while others dictate Britain’s fate. Shape or be shaped by events – it’s our choice.


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