UNDER Labour we had an aid programme stretched across 43 countries, including Russia and China, with officials – not Ministers – signing off multi-million pound programmes, too often delivering poor value-for-money for the taxpayer.
Well, that’s no longer true. It’s changed under this Government. We now target our aid to 28 countries, we have proper business cases, Ministerial sign-off, independent scrutiny of our spend, and critically, we now focus much more on jobs and economic growth; the very things that help countries to help themselves.
Of course, I know international development and the promise we made on it have been controversial for some.
But I don’t think anyone can look at the world today and believe Britain should have a foreign policy that just muddles through, hoping that as the world’s problems stack up one on top of another we can just pretend they don’t exist – and they won’t affect us.
We need to tackle these overseas problems head on. International development is not an optional extra or an afterthought: it is a vital component of Britain’s global toolkit – alongside diplomacy and defence – for shaping the world around us.
Take IS, we’ve seen it rampaging across Syria and Iraq, murdering Muslims and Christians alike. When I was in Baghdad last month, I saw the vital work being done by our Ambassador and his team to support the Iraqi government.
And when thousands of Yazidis were trapped on Mount Sinjar in August, it was DfID emergency relief, airdropped from Royal Air Force Hercules aircraft, that kept people alive.
In northern Iraq, I met displaced Iraqis now living in the grounds of a church and a tented camp, people who had fled with nothing; but at least had a canvas roof and food thanks to Great Britain.
The conflict across the border in Syria has led to millions of refugees, which is placing incredible strain on countries like Jordan and Lebanon, further destabilising an already-unstable region. Our humanitarian efforts there are sensibly helping those countries avoid buckling under the strain of millions of migrants – people who would rather be getting on with their lives at home, not uprooting their families. They have no choice if they want to stay safe.
And our support for education provision for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan means that if, and when, these young Syrians return home, they will have a better chance of earning a decent living in productive jobs – in turn helping rebuild their country – rather than having no hope, falling prey to extremism.
In West Africa, British humanitarian workers, soldiers and diplomats are working hard against an invisible enemy. Ebola is one of the most serious threats facing the world today – with estimates of up to 1.4 million people becoming infected by January if we don’t act.
All these places – Iraq, Syria, West Africa – they’re not a distant threat; they’re a five, six hour flight away. But I can’t talk about our responses to these crises without mentioning the people who risk their lives – and sometimes lose them – in dangerous, sometimes nightmarish, places.
In 2013, 155 aid workers were killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 kidnapped, including David Haines and Alan Henning. I want to pay tribute to David and Alan – and to the many others who do amazing work, including my own staff in DfID.
Hundreds of our doctors and nurses have also volunteered to go to Sierra Leone to staff our health facilities there. British medics were also in Gaza this summer. Theirs is the spirit of the firefighter running into the burning building when everyone else is running in the opposite direction.
So, Britain’s response to humanitarian emergencies sets us apart from so many other countries. And so does some of our fantastic longer term development work.
After more than four years of Conservative leadership, Britain does international development better and more efficiently than ever before. My department continues to win awards for procurement, ensuring the money goes where it’s needed.
We have also ramped-up our work on what our Prime Minster calls the ‘Golden Thread’ of development – absence of conflict, property rights, rule of law, women’s rights. These are the foundation stones of development in any country.
All of this work, across the globe, costs us 1.5p in every £1 of public spending.
It’s a choice of what we think’s better. Either, standing back, in a world with unstable countries that find it hard to prevent themselves becoming a breeding ground for terrorism that then gets aimed at us – or working to support stable, developed countries that can deal with their own challenges; that we can trade with, create jobs with, and have shared prosperity with.