Here is a question. Which politician said the following: “We’ve seen too that when women are empowered economically they are more likely to have a voice in the community and to be
advocates for other women.” Or “Britain will be placing women at the heart of the whole of our agenda for international development”. Clare Short? No. Hillary Clinton? Nope.
Harriet Harman? Wrong. It is former Army officer and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell speaking yesterday to the think-tank Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC.
To some, his comments will illustrate how the Conservative Party has moved to far away from its roots. But in fact it is both a welcome return to the kind of policies that were promoted by Lynda
Chalker, the Secretary of State for Overseas Development under John Major, but also an important way to show that the modern Tories are not only being “de-nastified” by partnership with
the Liberal Democrat, but are holding on to the enlightened positions the party adopted while in opposition.
In these times of financial constraint, and with much of the world still mired in poverty despite decades of development assistance, Mitchell’s message is difficult to sell. Many people still
do not believe, as I do, that a civilised country such as Britain ought to help poor countries — even in a recession — and that doing so is altruistic, but also in Britain’s interests. But
his remarks make a compelling case for focusing on poverty-alleviation and, in particular, concentrating on measurable areas of improvement, such as ensuring that for so many women, pregnancy and
childbirth is not life-threatening:
‘When a jumbo jet crashes anywhere in the world it makes the headlines. If it were to crash week in week out in the same place there’s not a person alive who wouldn’t be talking
about it. The international community would set up an enquiry and no money would be spared in making sure it never happened again. Yet, in Nigeria, the equivalent number of women die each and
every week from pregnancy-related causes – and the world stands mute.’
Transforming aid from a negative to a positive for women will have many beneficial effects. Key among these is a progressive solution to the global problem of unsustainable population
growth in a world that now contains 6.8 billion people. Most experts on population growth, citing statistics on family size, observe that when women achieve some degree of power, status and respect,
they tend to have fewer children.
Ought does not, of course, imply can. But there is increasing evidence to suggest that the deaths of 2.5 million children could be prevented each year through simple community-level interventions
such as getting children and their mothers to sleep under bed nets, improving basic hygiene, making clean water and oral rehydration salts available, and ensuring pneumonia and malaria are treated
promptly. These interventions will not make countries rich. Development aid cannot, at any rate, do that. But overseas aid should focus on practical and measurable areas like improving maternal
health. The visit by the Prime Minster to DFID the other day suggests that he agrees with his Development Secretary’s approach.