Daniel Korski

Britain’s foreign aid should empower women

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Here is a question. Which politician said the following: “We’ve seen too that when women are empowered economically they are more likely to have a voice in the community and to be advocates for other women.” Or “Britain will be placing women at the heart of the whole of our agenda for international development”. Clare Short? No. Hillary Clinton? Nope. Harriet Harman? Wrong. It is former Army officer and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell speaking yesterday to the think-tank Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC.


To some, his comments will illustrate how the Conservative Party has moved to far away from its roots. But in fact it is both a welcome return to the kind of policies that were promoted by Lynda Chalker, the Secretary of State for Overseas Development under John Major, but also an important way to show that the modern Tories are not only being “de-nastified” by partnership with the Liberal Democrat, but are holding on to the enlightened positions the party adopted while in opposition.


In these times of financial constraint, and with much of the world still mired in poverty despite decades of development assistance, Mitchell’s message is difficult to sell. Many people still do not believe, as I do, that a civilised country such as Britain ought to help poor countries -- even in a recession -- and that doing so is altruistic, but also in Britain’s interests. But his remarks make a compelling case for focusing on poverty-alleviation and, in particular, concentrating on measurable areas of improvement, such as ensuring that for so many women, pregnancy and childbirth is not life-threatening: 


'When a jumbo jet crashes anywhere in the world it makes the headlines. If it were to crash week in week out in the same place there’s not a person alive who wouldn’t be talking about it. The international community would set up an enquiry and no money would be spared in making sure it never happened again. Yet, in Nigeria, the equivalent number of women die each and every week from pregnancy-related causes - and the world stands mute.'


Ought does not, of course, imply can. But there is increasing evidence to suggest that the deaths of 2.5 million children could be prevented each year through simple community-level interventions such as getting children and their mothers to sleep under bed nets, improving basic hygiene, making clean water and oral rehydration salts available, and ensuring pneumonia and malaria are treated promptly. These interventions will not make countries rich. Development aid cannot, at any rate, do that. But overseas aid should focus on practical and measurable areas like improving maternal health. The visit by the Prime Minster to DFID the other day suggests that he agrees with his Development Secretary’s approach.