In this week's New Statesman: Europe's most dangerous leader

Plus a special report: can we afford foreign aid?

Can we afford foreign aid?

At the centre of the New Statesman’s aid package this week, the economist Dambisa Moyo, and the Liberal Democrat peer Paddy Ashdown debate the fundamental question: does aid work?

Moyo argues that much international aid to Africa has been ineffective in “combating poverty and spurring economic growth in a sustained way” because the majority is given without effective conditions attached – and that aid can negatively impact on an economy.

Moreover, foreign aid leads governments to spend more time “courting and catering to their donors than on their constituents”. Moyo questions why the world continues with its aid-based approach in Africa “when we know that trade, investment (domestic and foreign) as well as transparent and effective capital markets are essential for economic success”: 

There is a sense in which there is one set of policies designed for Africa, and another for the rest of the world.

Ashdown, meanwhile, argues that providing long-term aid is a practical as well as moral thing for the UK to do: 

The right type of development aid not only helps countries grow and gives children a better future but is also hugely important in helping to prevent great humanitarian crises. In the future, poverty and lack of access to resources will be two of the greatest drivers of conflict. Aid, which lifts countries out of hopelessness and poverty, is one of the best ways to prevent these conflicts. If you think aid is expensive, try war as an alternative. 

Also in the aid package, Imran Khan tells Mehdi Hasan that in Pakistan, “aid finances a lavish lifestyle” for politicians. Asked what damage international aid has done to the country, the chairman of the Movement for Justice party responds:

First, it stops us making the reforms to restructure our economy. If you have a fiscal deficit, you will be forced to cut your expenditure and you will do everything to raise your revenues. This important development did not take place, because of aid. Second, IMF loans. These two things have propped up crooked governments who have used the poor to service the debt through indirect taxation. The poor subsidise the rich in Pakistan. 

Elsewhere, the NS asks a number of campaigners and opinion-formers – from Jock Stirrup to Annie Lennox – a simple question: can aid end aid?

Tony Blair, who founded the Africa Governance Initiative, responds:

I believe in aid. That’s why, as prime minister, I negotiated the doubling of aid to Africa at the Gleneagles Summit in 2005 . . . But aid alone is not enough. Ultimately, development depends on two things: governance and growth . . . For our part, the rich world has to open up its markets and ensure that global trade rules are fair . . . [T]he of dependence on aid can be achieved within a generation.

Mo Farah, the British athlete and founder of the Mo Farah Foundation, argues “aid is vital in times of emergency – when famine struck Somalia last year UK aid kept people alive.” However, Farah points out: 

Drought is inevitable but famine is not, if we invest in the right solutions such as water wells, crop storage and support for farmers . . . We should be proud of our aid: it saves lives. And when the day comes when aid is no longer needed, we should be proud of that, too.

And in the NS interview, the model and charity ambassador Erin O’Connor tells Alice Gribbin how she thinks she can help Save the Children in their work with those suffering from preventable diseases in India:

“It’s about awareness. I’ve existed in 2D form for the past 15 years as a fashion model, but if that engages people who may recognise me here in the UK, that’s got to help in some way.”

Andrew Mitchell: “Midterm has arrived with a vengeance”

In the Politics interview, Rafael Behr discusses foreign spending in the age of recession with Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development. Mitchell rebuts criticisms aimed at the Tories that their commitment to aid is part of attempts to “decontaminate” the party brand. “It’s really insulting to say this is just about detoxifying the Conservative Party,” he tells Behr.

Mitchell also refutes complaints by some in the party that other “modernising” fixations – such as gay marriage – distract from the mainstream Conservative agenda. However, as Behr notes, the issue is a cause of grief for Tory MPs at the grass-roots level: some complain that gay marriage cost them seats in the May local elections. Mitchell instead blames economic uncertainty and the normal political cycle for the government’s difficulties, telling Behr:

“Midterm has arrived with a vengeance. It took a long time. Many of us couldn’t really understand why it was taking so long; it was like pulling a brick on an elastic.”

As an aside, Behr spots a telling piece of iconography in the cabinet minister’s office:

I notice, among the exotic souvenirs on a coffee table in the corner, a nutcracker that doubles as a Margaret Thatcher action figure.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • John Burnside, the poet, novelist and NS nature columnist contributes a new short story, “Perfect and private things”, written exclusively for the New Statesman
  • Mehdi Hasan argues Angela Merkel’s mania for austerity is destroying Europe
  • Rachel Shabi reports on the need to question the accepted narrative on Syria
  • Conor Mark Jameson investigates what is causing the strange disappearance of our songbirds
  • Rafael Behr reveals Labour’s divisions over House of Lords reform
  • In Critics: Julia Copus explores the role of time in art and litearture; Toby Litt reviews the new book on Blondie, Parallel Lives; Alec MacGillis considers David Maraniss's biography of the young Barack Obama and Will Self's Madness of Crowds


Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.