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.

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