Andrew Mitchell at Cambridge University: Thursday 9th February 2012

Andrew Mitchell. Photo by DfID

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Josh Dickens recaps the Secretary of State for International Development’s talk at Cambridge University last week. Josh is studying an MA in English at Cambridge and has a keen interest in current affairs and international development.

“Our capacity to make a difference is absolutely enormous”, declares Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield and Secretary of State for International Development. Despite the inevitable political bluster in such a claim, you can’t help but think he might have a point.

For nearly two years now, Mitchell has been at the helm of DfID, the government department with an £8 billion remit to help bring some of the world’s poorest people out of poverty and to provide essential relief to disaster-hit areas.

And today he is speaking at Cambridge University.

Mitchell’s department has the unlikely honour of actually seeing an increase in spending money in the midst of a recession, with the pledge to spend 0.7% of annual Gross National Income (GNI) on international development by 2015.

Mitchell grandly states that “America is a military superpower and Britain is a development superpower”, and certainly the statistics back him up: Britain was the world’s second biggest aid-giver in 2010 (after the United States), while it led the way among G8 countries with the highest aid expenditure relative to GNI (and seventh overall). The Coalition’s promise to ring-fence the DfID budget, a fantastic show of support that only the NHS has been similarly afforded, reveals a serious commitment to Britain’s world-leading role.

Floods devastated Pakistan in 2010. Photo by DVIDSHUB

With such a show of faith to international development, it is unquestionable that DfID can and do a great deal of good work throughout the world. Following the devastating floods in Pakistan in 2010, UKaid has provided shelter, including many permanent dwellings, to over 1 million people made homeless by the disaster, while DfID has helped more than 200,000 return to school in the flood-hit areas.

In Kenya, programmes supported by UKaid have vaccinated 400,000 children against measles and have distributed 199 million condoms over an eight year period in the country’s ongoing battle against HIV and AIDS. This year’s primary focus across the department is on females in developing countries, and girls in particular. Mitchell says, “If you want to understand development, you have to see it through the lens of girls.”

Successful aid provision is not always as clear cut as the above examples suggest, however. The Secretary of State proudly points out that for the first time since records began, there were no new polio outbreaks in India last year, no doubt a fantastic achievement. Yet earlier this month the Telegraph reported Indian Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee as saying that British aid was not required, and was “peanuts” in comparison to India’s own development expenditure.

In many ways, the situation in India reveals some of the essential problems faced in International Development, and Mitchell rightly describes it as a “development paradox”. One the one hand, there are more people in poverty in India than in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, while seven and a half times the whole UK population subsist on less than 80p a day.

At the same time, however, the Indian economy has been growing at nearly 10% per year, and is tipped to be larger than Britain’s by the end of the decade. What’s more, British aid to Delhi has been widely understood to be partly dependent on the sale of British-made Typhoon jets to the Indian airforce: a sale which appears is now not going ahead.

As well as the ugly implications of politically tied aid, the recent case in India points to a much larger hurdle facing DfID: namely, how can increasing expenditure be justified abroad when more than ever, people are struggling at home. If British aid to India is seen as “peanuts” in Delhi (and India is the world’s top recipient of British bilateral aid), then why can’t taxpayers’ money be spent where it will be appreciated: on taxpayers?

The debate here is a long and complex one, but Mitchell suggests that part of the problem lies in people’s perceptions of development. When polled, the public thought on average that 17% of government expenditure went on overseas projects; in fact the figure is 1.1%. When asked what amount should be spent on international development, the public’s response was 7%. By my reckoning, that suggests we could spend seven times as much in the world’s poorest places. Our capacity to make a difference is enormous: we just have to realise it.

For information on DfID’s graduate trainee scheme please click here.


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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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