Daniel Korski

Coffee House Interview: Andrew Mitchell

Coffee House Interview: Andrew Mitchell
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The government has stuck to its guns on overseas aid, promising to donate 0.7 per cent of our national income to other countries. In the Chancellor’s words, the government will not balance the books on backs of the world’s poorest people. In fact, as the criticism of the policy was at its highest the Prime Minster hosted a development summit in London and pledged £814m to help vaccinate children around the world against preventable diseases like pneumonia. On this issue, David Cameron does not seem for turning — however many letters he receives from the Defence Secretary.


But Liam Fox is not alone. A slew of recent polls show that Britons have mixed feelings about the utility of overseas aid. There are also persistent questions about corruption and the degree to which DfID — having been created at the height of New Labour, staffed by NGO people, and run by economists who have spent little or no time working in other government departments — can change to the degree that is required. I fielded these questions to Andrew Mitchell, the banker-turned-International Development Secretary.


Daniel Korski:
There is a lot of concern that your department has been ring-fenced while others, including the Ministry of Defence, are being slashed. A recent survey has suggested people don't support the government's choice. What do you say to those who would prefer to have more money for prisons or soldiers than overseas aid?

Andrew Mitchell: We give aid not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is in Britain’s national self-interest. When I was in Somalia, I saw first-hand how tackling conflict and poverty "at source" makes more sense than leaving problems to fester and threaten British interests in the form of terrorism, migration and piracy. It’s vital to show British taxpayers the results aid can achieve and demonstrate their money is being well spent. We’ve taken a long, hard look at all our aid programmes and we are focusing on where aid is most needed and can make the most difference. For example, the Prime Minister recently announced that, thanks to British help over the next five years, every two seconds a child in the poor world will be vaccinated against killer diseases. Our new independent aid watchdog will hold us to account on our spending, on taxpayers’ behalf.

DK: A big part of your recent argument for aid has been that it helps Britain, and not just the world's poor, by working in fragile and conflict-ridden states from which threats emanate. But despite millions spent in Yemen, for example, the country still seems bent on disintegration. Can the UK really make a difference?

AM: British aid can and does make a life-saving difference to people in desperate need. In the last few weeks alone in Yemen, British aid has helped 3,000 under-fives who are suffering from acute malnutrition. We have announced that we will vaccinate more than 50,000 children against measles and get more than 27,000 children back into school. Longer-term, it’s vital for all Yemenis that agreement on a transition of power is reached as a matter of urgency.

DK: You've said before that you want to infuse a private sector ethos into DfID to create a greater awareness of wealth creation and entrepreneurship. As Michael Howard said in The Times a few weeks ago, a more Tory kind of aid policy. What have you done so far to achieve this?

AM: Under the previous government, DfID did too little for too long to tap into the potential of the private sector. I’m determined to change this, because it is business, trade and enterprise that will stimulate the economic growth to help the poorest lift themselves out of poverty. This requires a new mindset at DfID. One of the first things I did as Secretary of State was to create a new Private Sector Department to harness the skills and resources of private enterprise to create wealth, improve the delivery of basic services in the poorest countries and mobilise more investment through a reformed and revitalised CDC (DfID’s investment arm). We are also making it quicker and easier to do business: reducing barriers, costs and risks, cutting red tape,  and opening up new markets.

DK: India has been a target for many critics, who cite New Delhi's space programme as a reason not to give any British aid. At the same time, according to a recent survey, people want British aid to follow British interests — and it is clearly in our interest to build a strong relationship with a growing India. How do you square this circle?   

AM: Our aid programme in India is changing. We’ve frozen the level of funding and from now on we are focusing on the poorest states — where over 300 million people live on less than a dollar a day — and on pro-poor private sector investment. India is a development paradox. It is a fast-emerging economy, and a real power on the world stage. As the Prime Minister said on his visit there last year, we want to maintain a close relationship with India. But there are still areas of grinding poverty, with more people living in extreme poverty than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, and this is why the time is not yet right to stop aid completely.

DK: Foreign Secretary William Hague says dealing with the "Arab Spring" is one of the 21st Century's greatest foreign policy challenges. In that light, the UK commitment to spend £110 million seems limited compared to a similar annual spend in countries like Malawi, which looks increasingly less open and democratic. Should the DfID do more in North Africa?

AM: It’s important to remember that British support in Libya has helped to prevent a humanitarian crisis, helping fund crucial food, shelter and medical supplies and helping fly home migrant workers trapped on the Libyan borders. Longer-term, British experts are playing a key role as part of an international stabilisation team to assess exactly what is required to help the Libyan people take control of their own destiny after the conflict is over. This is indeed a historic moment for the Middle East. The UK will continue to work in the region through the Arab Partnership, which works with those putting the building blocks of more open, free societies, underpinned by vibrant economies, in place. The International Financial Institutions and development banks will have an important role to play in terms of future funding.