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Don't let anyone tell you that you can cut overseas aid painlessly

We should always care about value for money - but we should be proud of our commitment to the world's poorest. 

This week has seen a further salvo of attacks on British overseas aid, but we should instead be starting 2017 with a grown-up conversation about the role of aid in defining Britain's values, responsibilities and place in the world.

Some charges levelled against aid merit investigation. The terms on which Department for International Development contracts are awarded must be subjected to proper scrutiny and debate. So should the salaries - mine included - of senior management in aid agencies, to ensure we balance attracting skilled staff with abiding by the values we stand for.

Priti Patel, the Secretary of State for International Development, has signalled a zero tolerance approach to waste - and quite right too. Value-for-money is not an abstract concept. It is about ensuring that every pound spent has the biggest possible impact.

However, the argument made by some critics is not only that we should scrutinise British aid more rigorously; it is that we should slash Britain’s aid commitments. 

Recent attacks include criticism of aid policy like cash-transfers, which have been proven to be both life-saving and highly efficient. There is a danger that this debate ends up being fueled only by political opposition to the very concept of British aid rather than based in clear-headed analysis of impact and value for money.  

Just as we should be brutally honest about whether British aid delivers bang for buck, so we should be equally frank about what reducing aid would mean.

I have heard it said that Britain can still do its bit for the poorest while at the same time reducing what we spend on overseas aid. This fits the maxim that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Cutting British aid would mean fewer children vaccinated against viruses that will kill them before their fifth birthday.

Cutting British aid would mean closing shelters, health centres and classrooms that we have built in refugee camps around Syria to care for children who have fled for their lives.

Cutting British aid would mean more girls out of school and exposed to the risks of child labour or child marriage.

Cutting British aid would also mean that next time a disease such as Ebola strikes, developing countries will be less prepared and we may unable to mobilise British doctors and nurses to fight its spread.

In Yemen, where a combination of war and poverty have created near-famine conditions, Save the Children staff and partners have screened over 90,000 children for malnutrition at a cost of $20 per child. If that's not 'value for money', I'm not sure what is.

In Nigeria last month, I met a woman called Rakiya whose husband had been killed and her village burned in the conflict there. In the face of violence and impending famine, Rakiya had fled to save her two young children. Before she could reach safety and medical help, she had lost one of them, a two-year-old, to measles. I sat with her as she clung to her painfully thin baby, Saliha, who is all she has left. But they now have a fighting chance to survive and rebuild their lives, thanks to emergency treatment from a centre funded by British aid.

The argument is made that while this emergency relief is justified, other aid should be cut. Yet it is the non-emergency aid that helps the world’s poorest countries to cope with disasters and stand on their own two feet.

In Britain, the taxman is not a popular figure. In Rwanda, he should be. There, British expertise and investment have been targeted at reforming the tax system. This may sound far away from emergency aid, but it has been just as significant a life-saver. The work has enabled Rwanda to collect three times as much in tax and spend five times as much on healthcare – doubling access to services which are tackling malnutrition and caring for new-born babies. British innovations like this must continue to be at the forefront of helping the world’s poorest.

Our generation has taken responsibility for driving huge, long-term improvements in the lives of the poorest. Six million fewer children will die needlessly this year than in 1990 because of increased vaccination and better healthcare. Over just the last five years, British aid has given 11 million children a chance in life by supporting them through school.

So don’t let anyone tell you that we can cut British aid without setting back this progress, without walking away from commitments, without cost to countless lives.

The UK must be ruthless in ensuring that every pound spent has maximum impact. But this means we need better aid, not less. In committing to spend 0.7 per cent of our national income on overseas aid, Britain has pledged to help people who have nothing. I am proud that we continue to deliver on that promise.

Kevin Watkins is chief executive of Save the Children UK. 

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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