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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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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