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Power of the “girl effect”

Two years ago, women from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda joined together on the bridge uniting their two countries to show that women can build bridges of peace and hope for the future. A global movement was born. Now, each year, thousands of people show their support
for women in conflict-affected countries by meeting on bridges around the world.

London is no exception. On 8 March - International Women's Day - the Millennium Bridge is playing host to a show of solidarity for those in countries less secure than our own.

I will be showing my support by joining the rally and speaking alongside figures such as the descendants of Emmeline Pankhurst and the head girl of a school in Tower Hamlets.

Ever since I first became my party's spokesman on international development in 2005, it has been clear to me that you can't understand deep poverty without understanding the issues faced by girls and women in the world's poorest countries. Now that I have the honour of being the secretary of state responsible for the government's work on global poverty, I'm relieved that this has become widely understood.

Investing in girls and women produces a transformational impact, whether it's girls going to school rather than becoming child brides or women being able to access microfinance and then reinvesting in their families' health and education. This "girl effect" is a virtuous circle and we instinctively recognise and understand its value.

At this point, I should declare an interest. As the father of two daughters, I know only too well that women can be strong and feisty agitators, unafraid to challenge the status quo or to argue with those who may foolishly think they hold positions of authority. The situations faced by my daughters, however, are a million miles away from those of girls such as Immaculate, whom I met last year on a visit to drought-ridden northern Uganda.

A question of choice

Sitting up against the wall of the family hut with her elderly grandmother, Immaculate told me her story. Her father had died when she was younger and she had been forced to leave school to look after the family. Undeterred, she'd refused to give up and, with the help of a small scholarship funded through British aid, she managed to continue her education, walking for hours each day to reach her school.

Now 16, Immaculate is utterly determined to realise her dream of becoming a teacher so that she can give something back to her community. Her story, told in fluent English thanks to the education she'd received, really touched me. I only wish more people could see the good use to which British aid is being put.

Through the Girls' Education Challenge Fund, we are helping more girls like Immaculate, getting up to a million of them into school in some of the poorest and most remote places in the world. We're looking for fresh ideas, for innovation, for new partners to test exciting and creative solutions in areas where more conventional responses have failed.

One of our top priorities this year will be to rally a renewed global emphasis on that most crucial issue: women's choice over whether and when to have children. It's simply unacceptable that hundreds of millions of women in our world today want access to family planning but do not have it. So, the government, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, will host a global, high-level event on women's choice this summer to generate new political energy and resources to meet demand among poor women for family planning.

More immediately, in the days and weeks ahead, we will be celebrating women and the huge difference they can make in breaking the cycle of poverty. In doing so, let us spare a thought for Immaculate and the countless other inspirational women who have refused to accept the hand life dealt them.

I am immensely proud that British aid is doing so much to help these women and, through them, generations to come.

Andrew Mitchell is Secretary of State for International Development

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.