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Andrew Mitchell: "The geezer who gives your cash to India"

The International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, skirts around Rafael Behr’s questions about Europe and the midterm blues — and hammers home his passion for his brief.

When Andrew Mitchell was passing through Heathrow Airport recently, he overheard a fellow passenger correctly identify him as the Secretary of State for International Development. Actually, what the curious stranger said was: “Isn’t that the geezer that’s giving all our money away to India?”

Most politicians are flattered to be recognised (surveys frequently show that the vast majority of people draw a blank at anyone below the rank of prime minister or chancellor) but the accusation of squandering taxpayers’ money on handouts to foreigners is one that Mitchell spends a lot of time rebutting.

“When people say charity begins at home I always say: ‘You’re absolutely right, but it doesn’t stop there.’ I think we have to be extremely sensitive at a very difficult time, when people are seeing their disposable income constricted and life is tough,” Mitchell says. “For under 1 per cent of national income, this is a very significant investment in our future prosperity and our future security as well as the future prosperity of some of the poorest in the world.”


Mitchell has been refining variants of this argument since 2005 when Michael Howard, the then Conservative leader, asked him to shadow the ministerial portfolio he now holds. His office at the Department for International Development (DfID), at the Victoria end of Westminster, is packed with the paraphernalia accrued from many years inhabiting the brief. One wall is dominated by a map of the world. Books on development, conflict resolution and aid strategy spill off most surfaces, often pushing aside or adorned with flags, icons and African sculptures that testify to a globetrotting portfolio.

The impression of a man comfortably settled in his government nook is reinforced by the way the Secretary of State pads across the spacious office in his socks to greet me. The rest of the look – navy suit, pale blue silk tie – is the more conventional uniform of Conservative cabinet minister. I notice, among the exotic souvenirs on a coffee table in the corner, a nutcracker that doubles as a Margaret Thatcher action figure.

Mitchell first entered parliament at the age of 31 in the Thatcher landslide victory of 1987, when David Cameron was still at university. He was not an early convert to the charms of the current Prime Minister, choosing to run the leadership campaign of Cameron’s defeated rival David Davis. But Mitchell is no firebrand. He is too studiously polite to seem hectoring. Yet he is keen to identify something pointedly Conservative in the manner in which government overseas largesse is now disbursed. It involves, he says, a greater emphasis on using aid to nurture the private sector in developing countries and a more rigorous process of auditing where the money goes.

“To be fair, Labour did a good job,” he says. “We are taking it a stage further. We’re focusing more on results and outcomes. There are no more day trips to Maputo by Gordon Brown to announce half a billion pounds for primary education. Our focus is on how many schools you build, how many teachers you train and how many kids get a quality education.” DfID is piloting an aid-by-results scheme in Ethiopia and Rwanda. It will trigger an increase in financial support when benchmarks are met in numbers of children at school – specifically girls going to school – and exams successfully sat.

Murmurs in the ranks

The mantra, steered several times into our conversation, is the pursuit of “100 pence of value from every hard-earned taxpayer’s pound” spent on aid. It is easy to understand the urgency of getting that message across. There is a hum of disapproval in the Conservative Party, rising to a roar of protest in some sections of the media, over the decision to “ring-fence” Mitchell’s departmental budget, protecting it from the deep cuts administered as part of the government’s deficit reduction programme.

The Queen’s Speech in May reaffirmed the intention to spend 0.7 per cent of national income annually on aid, but a coalition pledge
to enshrine that target in law was dropped – apparently to avoid antagonising Tory sceptics. “Let’s make the journey,” is Mitchell’s gnomic explanation when I mention that aid charities were disappointed.

A criticism he rebuts more fluently is that the Conservative commitment to aid stems from Cameron’s efforts to “modernise” the party while it was in opposition. Charity to the world’s poor, like husky rides in the Arctic, Cameron’s critics said, was a device to “decontaminate” the mean-spirited Tory brand.

“It’s really insulting to say this is just about detoxifying the Conservative Party,” Mitchell retorts. He cites the example of Project Umu­bano, a Conservative-run “social action” programme in Rwanda and Sierra Leone that was set up in 2007 and takes batches of MPs, activists and party staff out to do voluntary work. Participation was initially seen as a fast-track route for ambitious party hacks to show their dedication to the Cameron agenda. Now in its sixth year, Umubano, according to Mit­chell, has become an established emblem of Conservative priorities. “There is a deep passion and commitment to international development in the party,” he says.

No deviation

The commitment to aid spending, I note, is still seen by some in the party as a distraction from the mainstream Conservative agenda and symptomatic of a whole complex of metropolitan, “modernising” fixations, such as gay marriage . . . “I’m a supporter of gay marriage,” Mitchell interrupts. “If you look at the polling that’s been done, every cohort is in favour of gay marriage apart from the over-65s. If you explain to the over-65s that it’s civil marriage – not inflicting a view on the church – there is a narrow majority in favour.”

But it is an issue that causes grief for Tory MPs at the grass-roots level. Some complain that coalition support for gay marriage cost it seats in the May local elections. Clearly the Cameron project has not worked out as anticipated, has it? Mitchell puts all the government’s difficulties down to economic uncertainty and the normal political cycle: “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.”

He knows what bad political turbulence feels like, having served in John Major’s government as it fell apart in the mid-1990s. “Does this feel like ’92-’97, when I was a junior minister, strapped to the mast in a force-ten gale? It doesn’t. During the local elections there were times when it was tiptoeing on to that territory.”

There is another parallel. Major was finished by Europe, or more precisely by the divisions that European issues opened up in the Tory ranks. Perhaps it is the memory of those battles that makes Mitchell deeply reticent on the subject, though it dominates the political agenda. When I ask a long question about the European Union, I get the impression he is fighting an urge to let rip. “My special adviser is having an early heart attack,” he jokes, a little mirthlessly. I give assurances that my aim isn’t to provoke. There is a long pause.

“What I will say is this: whenever you have a bunch of politicians, they will always try to accrue power to themselves. That is a process that has been going on for years in the European Union and I think it has reached a point now, with everything that is going on, where people are questioning absolutely what this is all about.” Does he mean questioning the euro or questioning membership of the EU? “The single currency has brought it into sharp relief. And thank God for John Major who negotiated the opt-out.” There follows a long and florid paean to former Conservative leaders and their euro-prescience. It feels like a filibuster.

So has the time come to ask the British people if they still want to be part of the European project? There is an even longer pause. “That’s a very interesting question for another day.”

It is clear that no further deviation from the topic of international development will be indulged. So we finish off where we started, on the question of persuading people that overseas aid is a good use of public money in austere times. “Britain is vaccinating a child, over the term of this parliament, every two seconds and saving a child’s life every two minutes from diseases that none of our children die from,” says Mitchell, evangelical exuberance restored.

“These things are being achieved with much less money than the public think. If you ask people how much money they think goes on overseas aid, it’s 17.8 per cent of public expenditure. If you ask them what the right figure is, they come out at about 7.5 per cent. What is the actual figure? One point one per cent. So we are achieving these results with one-seventeenth of what people think we are spending and one-seventh of what they think we should be spending . . . We have to make the point every day.”

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.