"My approach instinctively is not to hide, but to go out and sing it from the rooftops," says Alan Duncan. "We can have a massive impact on poverty across the world." The Conservative international development minister is celebrating the UK government hitting its target of spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid.
Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, Duncan pledges a future Conservative government would maintain the ring-fenced aid budget and dismisses calls by Ukip and some Conservative MPs for it to be cut as irrational "silliness".
The minister also says the planned Western military action against the Syrian regime would not have changed the course of that conflict, which has "no end in sight".
The pledge to meet the United Nations goal of spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid was a key part of Cameron's Conservative detoxification strategy. The other was gay marriage. But while gay rights have significantly advanced in the West over the last few years, the same can not be said globally. The legalisation of gay marriage at home has been mirrored by a worrying rise in state-sanctioned homophobia in some of the countries that fall within Duncan's brief. He worries about the trend in "some African countries" and "potentially also some Caribbean countries".
Duncan, the first openly gay Conservative MP, has served in a number of front bench roles over the years before landing at the Department for International Development (DfID) under secretary of state Justine Greening. He says the UK is "increasingly vociferous" in campaigning against homophobia. "We will lobby and make our views clear in the same way we campaign vigorously against the use of the death penalty."
"Some countries are going backwards [on gay rights] and the use of gay hate as a vulgar form of nationalism is contemptible in my view, the trouble is some of the countries where this is happening are very poor. And often we have to look at such countries and say, I don’t like the law, but we’ll still help the poor." He adds that the "antidote" to his "anger" is to go and look at the good work DfID does.
Asked whether there are religious motivations behind some of the anti-gay laws in Africa and elsewhere, Duncan replies: "All over the world there is often a collision between gay rights and religious fundamentalism, if you want to call it that. And that collision is difficult to resolve, particularly in more primitive cultures. And it will take time."
And should the Church of England do more to combat homophobia abroad? "A lot of the religious zeal is not within the formal Episcopal Church. And of course in a lot of cases it’s also Islamic," he says. The "same misery" is caused no matter what the motivation behind anti-gay persecution, Duncan says. "But all countries are different, all societies are different. The leadership and influence structures in all societies are different. It’s an issue which has to be advanced in different ways in different countries in a variety of different approaches."
In Uganda, now notorious for its laws targeting gay people, DfID has cut direct aid to the government and instead funnels money to people through civil society. Duncan says its "gruelling indeed" to have to watch the treatment of gay people in some countries, but says "we can’t hurt the poor by using the withdrawal as a weapon against poor governments we don’t like".
Duncan is speaking to HuffPost UK after returning from a DfID trip to Bangladesh, a year on from the collapse of a clothes factory that killed 1,100 people. An overwhelming number of the victims were women.
Another priority for the department, he explains, is a "really loud and practical focus on women and girls". The prime minister will be hosting an international conference on the issue in June in an attempt to bump the issue up the global development agenda. "This is to highlight in that in development and all decency across the world in countries that have challenges a focus on women and girls is the one that makes the difference."
Kenyan gays and lesbians and others supporting their cause wear masks to preserve their anonymity as they stage a rare protest, against Uganda's increasingly tough stance against homosexuality
THE IRRATIONAL SILLINESS OF AID CRITICS
The UK spent £11.4bn on aid in 2013. It is now one just six countries to reach the UN set goal, alongside Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and Luxembourg. The 0.7% pledge was front and centre of Cameron's strategy while in Opposition - but the achievement went by without much fanfare. Duncan denies the government is trying to fly under the radar with the achievement given the not insignificant public opposition.
"The prime minister is very adamant about this and trumpets it wherever he can and quite rightly so," Duncan says. "Everyone has known for years it's [meeting the target] coming and they can see it coming, so once it crosses the finishing line they can say, 'oh yeah, got there'."
And Duncan says unambiguously that a post-2015 Conservative majority government will "retain this 0.7% commitment". Although he is more circumspect as to whether it will be a manifesto commitment. "Whether it will be there in black and white I don’t know, but that’s our policy."
Does government need to shout louder about the good that Britain can do with its aid money "My approach instinctively is not to hide but to go out and sing it from the rooftops."
He adds: "But there are some people who will not take facts for an answer and with whom you just can not talk rationally. So you have to be patient with them and not lose your rag."
"Be proud of it I say. What I find is if you begin to engage a lot of aid critics in discussion and say 'were you down to your last £100 would you give £1 away to stop someone dying in the street?' and they say yes, you say 'well that’s what we’re doing with aid' and then they back off and say ‘yeah ok, alright, yeah alright’ and they go off to the pub."
Ukip leader Nigel Farage demanded UK aid spending be diverted to fund flood defences. A suggestion Duncan dismisses as 'cheap'.
Duncan clearly has very little time for those, including many Conservative MPs, who would see aid spending cut given the deep cuts to other areas of public spending. International development is an "easy target" Duncan says. And calls to divert funds to home spending is just "a cheap headline".
"Why give it to foreigners when we ought to be giving it to ourselves. It's very easy," he says, repeating his critics' line of attack. "The sort of, idiocy is too strong a word, the silliness is that they don’t even for a moment stop to work out the arithmetic.
"If you ask someone who is an aid critic what percentage of government spending is spent on aid they think maybe 10%, maybe 15%, well it's only a little bit over 1%. Because its 0.7% of national income which means something like 1.2% of government spending. Diverting 1% of government spending to defence, or police or schools or health isn't going to solve any of those problems and certainly not all of them."
When southern England was hit by severe flooding earlier this year, Nigel Farage attempted capitalise on the problem by arguing aid money should be diverted to flood defences back at home. Duncan says the Ukip leader showed "a complete lack of understanding of what development sending needs to be and how it's defined".
"As much money as was needed for the UK floods was available anyway so you didn’t need to cut aid spending to transfer to the floods ," he insists.
SYRIA: NO END IN SIGHT
Arguably the biggest humanitarian catastrophe currently facing the world is the flood of refugees fleeing the brutal civil war in Syria. Duncan concedes there is "no end in sight" for the crisis. He worries that the scale of the problem is not matched by the rest of world's commitment to helping. "The problem remains with refugees that donor fatigue is setting in," he says.
Would David Cameron's plan to launch military strikes against Assad, ultimately foiled by a Commons rebellion, have helped prevent the current exodus of civilians from Syria? "I don’t think so," Duncan sighs. "All it would have done is a short, sharp, sort of burst of fire, to protest against the use of chemical weapons. There are of course arguments about whether a red line was crossed and therefore it was bad not to have done this. But in terms of changing the course of the conflict, I'm not sure it would have had a dramatic impact."
This view is in stark contrast to others, including former Foreign Office Alistair Burt, who worry the failure of the West to intervene helped president Assad in his fight against the Opposition.
Duncan, assuming he survives the expected summer reshuffle, has a year left in post before the general election. But he seems confident that the role of Britain as a leading player in development is cemented. "Good development needs continuity," he explains. "Fortunately there is cross-party agreement so I don’t think the general election, whatever the result, will lead to an interruption of what we do, nor should it."
Residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, queuing to receive food supplies, in Damascus, Syria.