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14 January 2010

Douglas Alexander extra

On Copenhagen and the International Development budget

By James Macintyre

This week’s extensive interview with Douglas Alexander had to be trimmed to fit the magazine, and, given the central position of the election co-ordinator in recent party speculation, we decided to make the printed version purely “political”. For those of you craving a bit of policy, however, here is what the International Development Secretary had to say about climate change and the prospects for his own budget for overseas aid.

The last occasion I’d spent any length of time with Alexander had been in August, on a visit to Bangladesh to highlight the effects of climate change in advance of last month’s Copenhagen summit. What is his analysis of that contentious situation now, with the summit largely written off as a “failure” by campaigners and the media?

“Of course, as we discussed in Bangladesh, we want a legally binding treaty and we continue to work to strengthen the accord that was delivered in Copenhagen,” he said. “I’m by nature an optimist: I think we should see Copenhagen as the next step forward but far from the end of the journey. In the future we need to secure greater certainty both for developed countries and for developing countries.”

He added unashamedly: “I’m really proud of the role of the British government in Copenhagen. I don’t think any government worked harder before the negotiations, during the negoiations, or is more committed after the negotiations to make progress on this issue. It reflects our politics.

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“Climate change is the biggest market failure in history . . . It’s a subject on which we continue to be focused, even after the Copenhagen conference. I was there in the early part of that week [in December], and I had a meeting with Ed Miliband [the Climate Change Secretary] yesterday morning and with Ed and the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon.”

On his main departmental brief, Alexander was also optimistic that, despite doubts, including concerns expressed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies amid cuts, the government can achieve its spending target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI).

“On Friday we will be publishing our bill committing the British government to meet the UN target of 0.7 per cent GNI to be spent on international development from 2013,” Alexander said. “We’ve been working hard to meet that commitment and we are on track . . .

“Every government since the 1970s has accepted that target — we are the first to deliver it in a systematic way. I expect that this year we will have a higher proportion of our economy being spent on international development than ever in British history, exceeding even the last high, in 1979 when Labour lost office.”

The International Development Secretary pointed out that Labour has trebled the aid budget since 1997, while the Tories halved it during their last period in office.

“Those choices,” he said, “are not a matter of coincidence, but one of different vales and priorities.”