I recently found myself trundling along a muddy track heading in the direction of Kabul's International Airport, laden with flak-jacket and close protection, and contemplating the gap between what we enjoy, even in the most needy communities in the UK, and the men, women and children on the streets of Kabul's outskirts.
Recent discussions with my constituents sprung to mind, on the issue of DFID spending levels and maintaining development aid at 0.7% of GNP. I believe it is right to honour this commitment, whilst also robustly challenging the priorities and effectiveness of this spending. I welcomed the call by the House of Commons International Development Select Committee to encourage the government to link our aid in Pakistan to improvements in the integrity of the Pakistani income tax regime.
With Britain's increased investment comes increased influence; and the government should use its growing voice in the developing world to place an emphasis on capacity-building projects which will ultimately reduce the need for aid amongst recipient countries in the long-term. Goals in this area will not be met overnight. Nor will they be met in convenient, predictable patterns which sync with our general election cycle.
Recognising the deep, long-term nature of development work is critical to reasoning why we cannot duck out of our obligation when we feel the financial strain at home, and plan to return to it at a later date. Debate on how to achieve our objectives in development needs to be open and informed. Alongside DFID, the role of the British Council must remain central to our efforts overseas.
It was at the invitation of the British Council that I once again found myself in Afghanistan, having previously visited as a member of Defence Select Committee in 2011. Having seen how our nation exercises hard power in one of the toughest environments imaginable, I was eager to see how soft power was deployed in the same environment.
The work of the British Council in Afghanistan can be divided into three elements: English, the arts, and education and society. During my time in Kabul, albeit brief, I was able to witness examples of all three.
The Council's work in promoting English learning and teaching programmes is arguably their signature activity. In Afghanistan it was good to see that their efforts were fully aligned with the work of the Embassy's Defence Section, and I opened a new English learning centre - the fifth so far. More such centres are due to open to support the Afghan National Army Officers Academy, which will be the UK's legacy military contribution to Afghanistan Academy, due to open in October 2013. The British Council also delivers English classes for personnel from Afghanistan's three main security operations as well as preparing Afghans attending full time military training in the UK.
Next on the itinerary was an English Teachers' training workshop at Kabul's teacher training facility, and part of the effort to raise the quality of education in Afghanistan. Again, the long-term nature of the relationship between the Afghan faculty and the British Council was apparent, and it was clear that British Council staff had secured credibility with those receiving support. It was also heartening to note that in a class of 60 trainee teachers, at least half were female.
In the arts, the British Council have been working with both the Afghanistan Institute of Music (ANIM) and the National Museum of Afghanistan, offering professional leadership development and small grants. In visiting ANIM I was struck by the enthusiasm of the musicians, 50% of whom are orphans, and the transformative impact this facility was having on culture in Kabul. The orchestra had recently returned from a performance in Carnegie Hall, and I hope we are able to welcome them to the UK soon.
As we left the muddy track behind and joined the highway, I considered again the debate around development spending and the British Council's work - some might perceive such efforts as an unaffordable luxury. However, I believe it should be seen as an integral part of the range of soft power activities we deploy to secure goodwill, create mutual understanding, strengthen development, and build the broader cultural infrastructure required to enable good government to succeed in the least stable countries. It is in deepening the cultural roots and self-confidence of a well-educated civil society that the impact of the British Council's work is best understood.
International development is a difficult arena to pin-down to quantifiable metrics of success; meaning expenditure can be left open to mis-characterisation. If 'success' is viewed as 'how many teachers attend a British Council training event' then I think we miss something about quality and long-term impact. The true mark of success will be how many of those teachers will go back from Kabul to teach in far-off regions of the country and be inspired to teach local teachers new techniques and an awareness of British culture and values.
Despite pressure to deliver savings - and the British Council have taken their share - let us be clear that this work is not easy, and the impact is not always immediately apparent.
The road back to Salisbury was a long one, but it wasn't as long as the journey Afghanistan is on to achieve self-sufficiency and security. It seems to me that by re-framing what timetables are realistic, and recognising the value of collaboration and long-term relationships we can understand the role of soft power more fully, and appreciate the long term support the British Council brings to development of the most inhospitable countries in our world today. I am proud to support the British Council and be an advocate for all that they seek to achieve.