Despite his – undoubtedly busy and stressful – new role as Chair of the Exiting the EU Select Committee , Hilary Benn still managed to find time to talk to Development in Action about his time as Secretary of State for International Development. Benn was more than happy to give us his opinions on the UKs role in taking in refugees from the Calais refugee camp, recent comments made by Priti Patel on aid budget spending, and why we must work together to create a sustainable future.
Benn’s stance on the UKs role in housing refugees is clear. Despite the passing of the Lord Dubs Amendment back in April, the government is still not doing enough to provide safety and shelter for the estimated 95,000 child refugees in Europe. “We’ve all got a responsibility to offer shelter to those who are fleeing conflict and seeking asylum. That’s the first thing, secondly, there is a particular issue about unaccompanied child refugees and the UK has not been doing enough and it needs to do more.”
When it comes to the current conflict in Syria, Benn believes that the priority for the international community, “is to bring it to an end and that requires a ceasefire, it requires then negotiation between the Syrian government and the higher negotiating committee”. With conviction, Benn concludes Britain, “will want to play their full part in helping Syria to get back on its feet”.
Reflecting on his time as Secretary of State for International Development, Benn talks fondly of his work in DfID and what he managed to achieve. When he was first promoted to the cabinet role in 2003, his father, former MP Tony Benn, revealed that the Benn house “rocked with delight” upon hearing the news. Therefore, it is no surprise that Hilary talks with sincerity and compassion when mentioning such accomplishments as leading the campaign for the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), working towards the Millennium Development Goals in the run-up to the 2005 World Summit, and honouring UK aid commitments. “The focus of my work in DfID was trying to carry through on the UKs commitment to assist countries in tackling poverty, focusing on the poorest countries in the world, supporting education and vaccinations in the run up to the 2005 summit, the UK led the way with others in campaigning for debt relief, and debt relief did make a real impact in developing countries.”
In October, current Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel said, “We have to make sure that our aid works in our national interest” and that if the projects funded by the UK aid budget “are not performing then obviously we’ll look at the contributions that we give to them”. When asked whether he agrees with this statement, Benn says that, “it is in everyone’s interest that global poverty is reduced, that wherever people live, they live in countries of peace and stability. That is the very building block of development”. While the two MPs may have different understandings of what is in our national interest, it is crucial to Benn that the UK keeps its commitment to spending £12 billion on aid per year, as, “it is morally the right thing to do, but it is also in our self-interest that people should be able to live safe lives, raise their children, get them educated and do all of those things in the land they were born in”.
Calls for political education in national secondary school curriculums have grown significantly since the EU referendum result, and for Development in Action, global citizenship and development are crucial parts of secondary education. Benn agrees with the DiA mission, stating that, “the last Labour government put citizenship on the national curriculum” which he, “very strongly supported”. Furthermore, he strongly believes that, “part of the balanced education that every young person should have, does need to include an understanding of how our democracy works, what a member of parliament is and what is the function of parliament”.
Benn ended the interview with a thoughtful musing on the challenges facing development in the future. “Here we are at the beginning of the 21st century and if you asked me to think of one word which sums up the human condition then that word would be interdependence. When I was born 2.7 billion people were living on the earth, by the time my two grandsons reach my age, they will be living on this small and fragile planet with ten billion other people. Now there are many conclusions one can draw from that, but one of them is that we are going to have to find a way to work and co-exist side by side with each other successfully, and we’ve got to do that while reducing the impact of human activity on the planet.”
Thumbnail image: Hilary Benn MP addresses the RISING Global Peace Forum in Coventry in November 2015
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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