Britain still committed to international development

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BY ANDREW MITCHELL

Today I want to deliver a message from the new Coalition Government of Britain directly to the millions of people across the world who are battling against poverty, disease and injustice.

Our message is this: the people and Government of Britain are on your side, and we will use every tool in our policy armoury – aid, trade, climate policy, diplomacy, business investment, and more – to champion justice, freedom, fairness and prosperity for you.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the scale of the challenge that confronts us. 8.8 million children die before the age of five each year. Half a million women die due to complications in pregnancy or childbirth. 72 million children are missing out on primary education. Every day nearly 25,000 children die from easily-preventable diseases.

Clearly, we must act, and act now, to right these wrongs and end this terrible waste of human potential.

But we can’t escape the fact that in Britain, today’s economic situation is radically different from what has gone before. The UK has a massive deficit, which it is our number one priority to tackle.

Of course, there are those who argue that in these difficult times aid and aspiration are inevitable casualties of austerity.  I disagree. This is a time to reaffirm our promises to the world’s poor people, not abandon them. We won’t balance the books on the backs of the world’s poorest.

We have resolved, in our Coalition programme for government, to honour our commitment to spend 0.7 percent of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and to enshrine this commitment in law. We will keep aid untied from commercial interests, and maintain the Department for International Development (DFID) as an independent Department, focused on reducing poverty.

The philosophy of empowerment will be central to our approach.  We want people in developing countries to be masters and owners of the international development system, not passive recipients of it. 

For instance, many aid agencies are testing options that involve giving control to citizens through direct cash transfers. I want us to explore that for ourselves. And where cash is not appropriate, we’ll look at other measures that involve participation, choice, and self-determination. I’ve seen for myself in Ethiopia just how effective this can be.

But working to build capable and effective states is also vital. Where the market or communities are not providing core functions or services, the role of government is crucial. Here too, we’ll put the power in the hands of developing countries rather than dictating activity from a distance.

Linked to this theme are other, wider opportunities for empowerment; the sort of power that enables citizens to hold their governments to account. In future, when we give money directly to governments in developing countries we want to earmark up to five per cent of the total amount to help parliaments, civil society and audit bodies to hold to account those who spend their money. 

If empowerment is a key component of development, so too is transparency – transparency for the UK taxpayer and transparency for the recipient. This is why I’m pleased to announce a new UK Aid Transparency Guarantee that will help to create a million independent aid watchdogs – people around the world who can see where aid money is supposed to be going and shout if it doesn’t get there.
 
The Guarantee commits us to publishing full information about DFID projects and programmes on our website – in a way that is user-friendly and meaningful. Over time, we want to make that information available, in an open and standardised format to the people who depend on the funding: the communities and families living in developing countries. Knowledge is indeed, power.

We will also bring new priorities to the work we do on the ground. Tackling the scandal of maternal mortality is particularly important. Half a million women die during pregnancy and childbirth every year, a figure that has barely fallen in the past two decades in many regions. So we will work to strengthen health systems and family planning facilities in developing countries, including taking steps to improve access to well-trained midwives and emergency obstetrics care.

As the new UK Secretary of State for International Development I am honoured to take charge of DFID, and I am determined to continue – and improve – our work.

(Andrew Mitchell was appointed UK Secretary of State for International Development on 12 May 2010.  This is a shortened version of his first major speech, which he gave at Oxfam\’s 21st Century Aid report launch event on 3 June 2010, at the Royal Society in London)

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