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Interview with British International Development Secretary Hilary Benn

UK Development Secretary Hilary Benn. Anthony Mitchell/IRIN
UK Development Secretary Hilary Benn.
Britain has not yet met its commitment to spending 0.7 percent of GDP on foreign aid. But despite this, says the UK’s International Development Secretary Hilary Benn, Africa’s future development is one of the British government's key priorities. Here, during an interview with IRIN, he states that UK aid levels are rising, noting that economic growth within African countries is fundamental to promoting long-term development. QUESTION: The UK has set up a government task force for Africa – what does it entail? ANSWER: The prime minister [Tony Blair] has made very clear the priority that he attaches to Africa, and he has said that this will be one of his two main priorities for the G8 presidency that the UK will be taking on in 2005, and indeed the EU presidency. As part of that, we are discussing how we can maintain the focus on Africa and engaging in discussion on what more needs to be done to support Africa’s development. No announcement has been made yet on how that is going to be taken forward, but you can be rest assured that this is going to be a central priority of the government’s G8 presidency. Q: And why will this be different from other strategies for Africa? A: I think what is important for the international community at the moment is that we should maintain the focus on Africa, because Africa is the continent where progress or lack of progress will determine whether we meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. And therefore, to maintain the focus on Africa, to build on the things we are already doing - for example increasing development assistance - as far as the UK is concerned, by 2005/06 our aid programme in Africa will reach GBP1 billion a year. That is an expression of commitment, not just words but deeds - the increased amount of money that we are putting into fighting HIV/AIDS, which is a big issue here in Ethiopia as well as other sub-Saharan African countries, the progress we make on the world trade talks, ensuring that countries can get debt relief that’s available. I feel very strongly that we need to be able to demonstrate that progress is possible, and I believe that to be the case, and in some countries you can see that very clearly, because then that will reinforce political commitment to do more to help the governments of Africa to improve the conditions of their peoples. Q: Why has Britain not met its commitment of allotting 0.7 percent of GDP to foreign aid? A: We are committed to the 0.7 percent target. When the last Labour government left office in 1979, we were [disbursing] just over 0.5 percent. There then followed 18 years in [the course of] which Britain’s overseas aid budget was cut, and when we came back into office in 1997 it had fallen to 0.26 percent. Now there has been a very significant increase since then, and by 2005/06 we will reach 0.4 percent, and over the period since the election of the government, the UK’s overseas aid budget will, not quite, but will nearly be doubled in real terms. That is a very real expression of practical commitment, not words but deeds, and we intend to make further progress. Q: And when will you meet it? A: We haven’t yet set a timetable. But what matters is that we are making significant progress and significant increases from a very low base that we inherited from the last government, which is enabling us, for example, to spend GBP1 billion on Africa by 2005/06 and is enabling us to provide more support to a number of countries, including Ethiopia as I have announced today. Q: Would you accept that successive governments have let Africa down by failing to meet this commitment? A: I think aid matters a great deal. If you have a country which has - for example, let's take the primary education goal where 113 million children currently around the world are not in primary school. If a government has a plan, a way of implementing it, the capacity to spend money not only to build but also to maintain and staff schools, but is short of the resources to make it happen, then aid can help to fill that gap. But aid is only one of the things we need to do. If enabling progress to happen in Africa, if meeting the Millennium Development Goals in Africa was simply a question of the amount of aid, in one sense it wouldn’t be so difficult, but it isn’t, because aid is only part of the answer. Debt relief, opening up trade opportunities, private investment, economic growth, making sure that conflict doesn’t kill the prospect of all of those things happening - it is the combination of all of those things that is really going to make a difference, and part of that is down to what the international community can do to help, and part of it is down to what the governments in Africa can do themselves. Q: And what is the British government’s main priority, its main focus in Africa? A: Our focus is on tackling HIV/AIDS, because if that problem is not addressed, then not just the human impact but also the economic impact is going to be very considerable. In Malawi, currently teachers are dying of HIV/AIDS faster than they can be trained. In those circumstances, what are the prospects of meeting the primary education target? So HIV/AIDS is an important priority for us. [As for] making progress in education and health, we have as a government a number of targets as part of our agreements with the treasury at DFID [Department for International Development] related to the Millennium Development Goals which focus on particular countries in Africa where we have significant programmes and where we are working to see that progress actually delivered, supporting good governance, providing technical assistance as governments reform the way in which they work. So there is the capacity to spend governments' resources with the help from donors efficiently and deliver a difference on the ground. In the end, that is what matters – do people’s lives improve? Q: And do you think people’s lives are improving in countries like Ethiopia, which has actually got poorer in the last decade? A: No. In Ethiopia the number of people who are actually destitute has increased. That’s why I said that the challenge here is enormous. In the immediate term, we need to help as we have done over many years, [and] the international community to make sure people are fed. The next step is to try and lift those who are destitute up the ladder of opportunity, and that is why the work we are doing to develop ways of providing support, not just in the form of food aid but also in the form of cash, so that communities and people can acquire a bit more in their lives and supplement their livelihood by finding other ways to earn a living. But the longer-term challenge for this country is if the land is having difficulty supporting the population as it is now, what is the future going to hold and how are the people going to earn their lives in the future? And [in this respect] a process of economic development, as the government has made very clear here, is absolutely fundamental to finding a long-term solution to what is a recurrent problem. Q: How are you building the capacity of organisations in Africa to tackle issues like HIV/AIDS and conflict resolution? A: Well, on HIV/AIDS by the international community acting in a way that supports government in trying to tackle this problem. By that I mean not all of us turning up separately with our own separate AIDS programmes, wanting our own discussions, separate reporting arrangements, because that puts a great burden on the capacity of ministries of health to actually get on with work on the ground to tackle the AIDS crisis. So, the international donor community, the global fund, all of the people who are putting more money into the fight against AIDS, more political commitment into the fight against AIDS, we have got to behave in a way that brings all of that together in each country to support one programme for tackling AIDS, one body for taking that forward and one mechanism for reporting on progress. That is the most important contribution we can make. Q: And on conflict resolution? A: On conflict resolution, I think the most important thing is to build and enhance African capacity to solve those problems within the continent, and that is one area where there has been real progress, not only because of what the African Union is doing, but if you look at the numbers of conflicts in Africa today and compare it with a decade ago, there are many fewer, and that is another reason why this is a time of real opportunity, because with peace and stability you have a chance of addressing these other problems. If you have conflict, the prospects for development are very bleak indeed.
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