Charity must not stop at home

The International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, defends the decision to ring-fence oversea

Andrew Mitchell may seem an unlikely Secretary of State for International Development. A supporter of William Hague for the Conservative Party leadership in 1997 and a friend of the maverick MP David Davis, Mitchell has long been seen as firmly on the right of his party. But look closely at this well-groomed Tory and you will see that he is wearing two coloured wristbands, one for Darfur and one for Rwanda, the latter marked: "Genocide: never again". The bands hint at the passions of a politician who is emerging as one of the most thoughtful members of the coalition.

Speaking to the New Statesman in his new office at the Department for International Development (DfID), Mitchell is impatient to make progress. "There's nothing to be said for opposition," he says. "You can only talk about things and you can lay your plans. You can't ­actually achieve very much; you have to be in government for that."

Now finally in office, Mitchell finds himself in the eye of a political storm, thanks to the decision of Tory high command to ring-fence ­development spending - a move aimed at aiding the "modernisation" of the once-toxic Tory brand. Despite the deficit, DfID's budget is set to rise by 63 per cent by 2013, and some commentators on the right have objected, citing the "age of austerity" and arguing that "charity starts at home".

Mitchell defends the funding pledge. "My ­argument is that charity does indeed start at home, but it doesn't stop there," he says. As well as reducing adminstration costs by a third, the new UK Aid Transparency Guarantee, he points out, will ensure independent assessment of development spending: "The ring-fencing imposes on all of us a double duty to make sure that for every pound that is spent on the development budget from hard-pressed taxpayers, we really get 100 pence of value."

But, surprisingly, he also concedes that the promise has not made his life easy: "It is quite a testing pledge - it's the sort of thing you make in opposition, then rather regret in government. But we've made it absolutely clear that that is what we are going to do." Given the obligation, he points to the "moral" case for increased aid, mentioning the 4,000 people who die from malaria each day, of whom 75 per cent are children under five.

Miracle worker

Mitchell also argues that development "is in our national interest". He cites Paul Collier, the Oxford University economist and author of The Bottom Billion, as he describes how the world's poorest people are "often trapped in conflict-ridden, insecure, badly governed states". Here he is at his most animated: "These are countries that export people . . . who put themselves into the hands of the modern-day equivalent of the slave trader, into a leaky boat, and cross hundreds of miles of ocean in the hope of tipping up on a European shore - these are not feckless benefit seekers . . . They are often the brightest and the best in those societies, who are seeking a better life for themselves and their families. How much better to persuade them, with international ­development and international support [for] their own country, that there's a future for them there?"

In addition, "the fact is that aid, where it is spent well, achieves miracles," says Mitchell. For him, there is one key statistic that demonstrates the aid budget's efficiency: "Britain, today, educates 4.8 million primary school children in Britain. And we educate five million primary school children around the developing world, at a cost of 2.5 per cent of what we spend on British children."

However, there are further controversies, including the coalition's decision to increase aid to Afghanistan by up to 40 per cent despite the well-documented corruption of Hamid Karzai's regime. Mitchell recalls a recent visit to a village near Kabul where he witnessed DfID accountability projects, and emphasises that "much of our money goes through the World Bank Trust Funds, which means it is only paid out on the basis of reimbursable receipts", giving the British taxpayer "some confidence that the money is being properly spent".

Then, there is the question of why the government is giving the tiny South Atlantic island of St Helena, populated by 4,000 people, a new airport - a project championed by Michael Ashcroft, the Tory donor. "We are doing it, first, because we have an obligation to the people of St Helena and, second, because it is in the interests of the British taxpayer," Mitchell says. Asked about Labour whispers that he was leant on by Ashcroft, he says: "Lord Ashcroft is a sort of Lord Voldemort [from Harry Potter] figure for the Labour Party - they think he is ­behind everything. He's got nothing to do with the decision on St Helena."

Compared to some of his colleagues, Mitchell - who describes himself as not "a particularly tribal beast" - is generous to his predecessors. He pays tribute to two former secretaries of state, Clare Short and Hilary Benn, while mysteriously omitting the most recent, Douglas Alexander. Short was a "brilliant development minister [who] advanced the cause of development", while Benn "was an absolute nightmare to shadow because he was extremely good at the job and a very nice guy".

He even adds, unprompted, that what Gordon Brown said at the AU summit in Kampala recently, about smart aid and IT investment, "was extremely sensible". However, he notes that the UN-endorsed pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP enjoys cross-party support, which "takes development out of party politics".

Break with China

Under Mitchell, DfID is going back to the drawing board and considering the necessity of its presence in every country. The government has already announced that it will stop aid to China and to Russia. Aside from this, he presents two priorities. The first is the pledge to spend £500m a year on tackling malaria, though critics argue this is disproportionate in an overall health aid budget of less than £1bn. The second is improving access to contraception, which Mitchell has spoken about at the UN: "We will embed greater choice for women over whether and when they have children."

Overall, Mitchell appears at home at DfID, a department he forcefully defends, and where civil servants seem to have unusually high morale. Some senior Tories, including John Major and Douglas Hurd, have argued that it should be merged with the Foreign Office. Mitchell says the two departments should work closely together but adds: "It is sensible that development should be done by the development specialists and there is a very, very powerful argument for keeping the two departments separate - it's part of the reason why DfID has an excellent reputation around the world."

Mitchell slogged round 38 countries, working out a plan for government. Now, he is eager to get on with the job: "We've hit the ground running . . . and the lights have been burning late here as we implement our agenda."

Read an extended transcript of the Andrew Mitchell interview here.

Relations with Rwanda

It is telling that Andrew Mitchell was wearing a Rwanda wristband. The UK is Rwanda's largest bilateral donor, giving around £380m since the genocide in 1994. In the two countries' "memorandum of understanding", support is concentrated on three areas: public financial management, human rights and international obligations, and poverty reduction.

For DfID, Rwanda has become a key success story. The country has achieved the second-highest growth rates in Africa, averaging 10 per cent from 1994 to 2000, and 6 per cent since then. In tandem, poverty has decreased, from 70 per cent in 1994 to 57 per cent
in 2007.

But despite this progress, there are serious and growing concerns about the nature of the Rwandan government - led by the soldier-president Paul Kagame, an ethnic Tutsi.

Kagame has become increasingly autocratic, closing down newspapers and preventing the registration of opposition parties. Journalists and political activists have been murdered.

Rwanda will go to the polls on 9 August and Kagame will win, remaining in power for another seven years. The question, then, is whether he will change the rules that limit Rwandan presidents to two terms in order to hold on to power beyond 2017.

Sophie Elmhirst.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood