Bringing the Party Along

07/10/2013 15:30 BST | Updated 07/12/2013 10:12 GMT

Many people may not have expected the Conservatives to include in their 2010 manifesto a pledge to spend 0.7% of national income on international aid. But three years on, it's clear that the party is becoming ever more comfortable with international development as part of their policy portfolio. As well as the high-profile summits the UK has hosted on development issues such as the availability of vaccines, global hunger, and access to family planning, The Prime Minister played a key role as co-chair of the UN High Level Panel (HLP) on what should replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Sightsavers was among the many development organisations who welcomed the HLP report for its focus on marginalised groups such as people with disabilities, who were left out of the current set of MDGs, as well as for its emphasis on the need for a 'data revolution' to ensure we can track the extent to which the call in the report to "leave no-one behind" is being put into practice.

This commitment to international development was visible at the Conservative party conference in Manchester. Cameron mentioned "helping Africa to develop" as something that "matters to Britain" in his keynote address; Chancellor George Osborne hailed "our commitment on international aid" as one of the government policies that is "delivering a fairer society"; and Foreign Secretary William Hague told the hall that "hundreds of thousands of girls in Pakistan and Yemen are going to school thanks to British development funding; and every two seconds, somewhere in the word, a child is saved from life-threatening diseases by vaccines provided by the United Kingdom".

These statements are matched by growing support for development amongst the party rank and file; demonstrated by the strength of the Conservative Friends of International Development group, and the increased engagement of backbenchers in development debates. Much of this can be attributed to the success of Project Umubano, which each year takes large numbers of Conservative politicians and activists to volunteer in Rwanda and Sierra Leone - meaning that increasing numbers of party members have seen development in action for themselves.

However, there remain some within the party who are sceptical about the role of international development and aid. Part of the job of any Conservative Secretary of State for Development, therefore, is to make the case for development to their party. This was what Justine Greening set out to do in her speech to the Conservative Party conference, saying of the aid spending target that "our 0.7% is 100% in our national interest". She described the UK's recent investments in the Global Fund as being "about economic productivity", explaining that "if we can reduce malaria, we increase economic productivity". Greening took a similar tack when explaining her focus on women and girls, saying that "investment delivers some of the best returns of any development programmes", and later that "the key to a stable, successful country with prospects is a thriving private sector, jobs and businesses, trading with Britain and the rest of the world". She concluded by stating that "development doesn't just develop their economies, it develops ours too".

The reasons that we invest in development were debated at a roundtable discussion hosted by the AIDS Alliance and ResPublica at the conference in which Sightsavers participated. We talked about the role of traditional British values such as fair play and compassion; British people have a long tradition of giving very generously to help those in need elsewhere, from the yearly Comic Relief appeals to the unprecedented fundraising efforts after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2010 Haitian earthquake. It seems that British people dig deep time and time again because they feel it instinctively that is the right thing to do.

Alongside the important work Greening has led in engaging with the private sector and creating the conditions for growth in developing countries, DFID has also stepped up the work it does to tackle neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), a group of infectious diseases that affect approximately one billion people living in poverty worldwide; and just last week Sightsavers welcomed an announcement from DFID that the UK would take on the 'great neglect' of disability, ensuring in future that all schools built with British development assistance are fully accessible to children with disabilities. In the Secretary of State's remarks at a fringe event organised by BOND, she also confirmed her support for the recommendation in the HLP report that a post-MDG development framework should aim to 'leave no-one behind', and for the revolution in data gathering and monitoring on development indicators, disaggregated by gender, age, disability and more, that will be needed to ensure this is possible.

There are clear economic arguments to be made for these kinds of interventions; investment in health or education, for example, helps children to learn and adults to earn. It helps people to escape from poverty and provides the basis for long term development . A country burdened with preventable diseases that cause disability on a large scale will never be able to develop to its full potential, and nor will a society whose disabled members are unable to contribute fully.

But given that Conference is the one opportunity to talk to the whole of the Party about development, it would be good to see the Secretary of State focus less on that section of the party which remains sceptical, instead using the moment to share a positive celebration of the human impact of UK aid, and all that it has achieved in saving and transforming millions of people's lives - and let the successes speak for themselves.