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Why Borgen Mirrors Real Life Pressure on Governments to Cut Overseas Aid

Posted: 23/01/2012 00:00

A prime minister under pressure. A coalition government rebelling over whether money should be spent on a granddad at home or a 'bloke from Somalia' instead. A key finance bill is at stake. Deals are quickly made and unmade, alliances forged and broken, with an ever more pressing deadline that could see a premier fall...

That was the dilemma at the heart of last week's Borgen - the Danish political thriller on BBC4, which has fast become addictive viewing - and not just because this week there was (briefly) a spin doctor poached from Save the Children as a character.

No, what really made it compelling for me, as a former Number 10 adviser is that although prime minister Birgitte Nyborg - who struggles to ensure the Danish aid budget is not sacrificed - is a fictional character, it's obviously heavily rooted in what politicians have to do in real life to make sure aid budgets are not cut.

Getting life-saving aid to the top of the political agenda can have as much drama as any thriller - and I should know. I was working for Number 10 at the time of the landmark pledge to double aid to the poorest countries at the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit. I remember Tony Blair getting Bono in to the room to make an impassioned speech to convince the 'sherpas' (diplomats who act as go-betweens for world leaders). He was followed by the UK sherpa Sir Michael Jay dispensing with usual diplomatic niceties to bang on the table at dinner telling everyone bluntly that they faced their grandchildren being ashamed of them. Gordon Brown's tenacious negotiating approach, sometimes through the night, achieved breakthroughs like 100% debt cancellation.

There can be bluff and counter bluff - that after all is how universal access to AIDS treatment was negotiated. One outcome that led to six million people getting life saving AIDS drugs.

And why is all this effort put into it? Because aid is crucial. Just as Borgen's Birgitte Nyborg says in her impassioned New Year address, there are both compelling moral and economic arguments for continuing aid; she points out that in Denmark only five in every 1,000 children die, compared with 200 per thousand lives in Afghanistan.

Of course, Save the Children realises it is tough to protect aid when there is such hardship at home. But it's to the UK coalition government's credit that - like his fictional counterpart in Borgen - David Cameron has stuck to his guns that it is right to give 0.7% of Britain's GDP that will help those less well off than us around the world.

The impact of aid is lasting. The UK's financial contribution to the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) will vaccinate one child every two seconds for the next five years, immunising 80 million children in all and saving 1.4 million lives. This year the UK's aid budget will support 15.9 million children to go to school, and enable 5.8m mothers to give birth in a safe environment. That will save the lives of over 60,000 women, and avert an estimated 340,000 stillbirths and 430,000 new-born deaths.

Helping the world's poorest families is also in our own interest. By improving people's lives we are building a stronger, safer world - for less than a penny in every pound of our taxes.

Such a small investment brings hugely valuable returns and can drive the global economy. Aid also protects our domestic security, and gives us influence on the world stage.

In meetings with the Chinese they always gave great emphasis to our leadership on development. And it continues to save lives. We have made dramatic progress in reducing child deaths in recent years. Cutting British aid would jeopardise this global success.

This year the prime minister has an opportunity to create a breakthrough on another issue. In 2011, food prices reached a global high, perhaps costing 400,000 children their lives. This year urgent action is needed to address that crisis and we're going to be urging the prime minister to spearhead the biggest ever movement against hunger that could save millions of children's lives.

There have been moments when backbenchers and even some ministers have pushed to renege on solemn promises to the world's poorest. It's to Cameron, Osborne, and Mitchell's credit that they have refused to be swayed by pressure and remain committed. Now we need to see this put into law as the government promised. As prime minister Nyborg tells the Danish audience in Borgen, aid matters: "Everyone should have the right to see their children grow up."

 
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