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Defending Aid Should Not Be Hard Sell for New Development Secretary

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Delegates at the Tory Party conference heard some impressive statistics this morning. Among them, aid has helped stop a quarter of a million newborn babies dying needlessly. A further 11million children now have access to permanent schooling.

Justine Greening, the new development secretary, was setting out her stall for Britain's overseas aid spending - stressing the importance of transparency and value for money, arguing that helping the world's poorest is "the right thing to do and the smart thing to do".

We must also reassure critics that modern-day development goes much further than carrying out vaccinations and food distributions to the largest number of people for the least investment.

As the government acknowledges, the reality of effective aid is far more complicated. We need to empower people in the communities we work to campaign for better health services; for better education; and for laws to protect children from early marriage and harmful labour. We will also help to provide the solution but it must be what the community wants and needs.

This means we can help people to lift themselves out of poverty for good, rather than achieve quick-fix results which look good on paper for donors.

As the Secretary of State says, we should be focusing our efforts on countries that are less able to help themselves.

The Overseas Development Institute says that, by 2025, most of the world's poorest people will live in fragile and conflict-affected states.

One of the most fragile countries in the world is Afghanistan. A few months ago I visited a tiny maternity unit in the west of the country where new midwives are being trained. Many take up work in remote parts of the country such as Ghor province. It has a population the size of Leeds but, a few years ago, it didn't have a single trained midwife.

That has changed and lives are being saved. And the community is now equipped with expert knowledge and skills which will be passed on. The overall picture is improving too: in the past nine years, the proportion of children dying in the country has halved.

Midwifes are crucial to protecting children. Without trained birth attendants, mothers are much more likely to die in child-birth leaving their babies extremely vulnerable to death and disease.

In another example of local communities changing their own fortunes, World Vision began working with Kiyeyi, a village in Uganda in 2008. At the Kiyeyi Health Centre staff were over-worked, drugs were regularly out of stock and there were many community complaints.

World Vision held meetings introducing the community to Ugandan government health standards so that the local people could successfully lobby local politicians for more resources. Following this community mobilisation the clinic now has five additional nurses, including two midwives.

It's because of these successes that we will continue to argue the British Government is right to increase its overseas aid spending next year to 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income - a tiny fraction of our budget, and less than one penny in every pound.

The fact is that defending overseas aid to sceptics in the Tory party, and elsewhere, shouldn't be a hard sell.

We will inevitably run into difficulties if we pretend that aid is perfect; or that it's a panacea for the developing world.

Once we admit that it's neither - and that aid is only part of the equation - the perfectly legitimate and vital process of scrutinising and debating overseas aid can continue.

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