Man with a mission

The new Secretary of State for International Development was “delivering Christian Aid envelopes long before Labour Party leaflets”. Douglas Alexander tells Developments about why he wanted the job and why it’s time to speed up progress on the Millennium Development Goals.

Douglas Alexander 1You’ve said that this is the job in the Cabinet you wanted – why international development?

International development is something I care passionately about and an issue I’ve been interested in for a long time. It’s not just that development makes such a difference to the lives of millions of people but it’s also an area of policy where we can make real progress. Let me also say that DFID is a seriously impressive department with a great reputation within government. It’s full of really talented staff – as I’ve discovered already – and it’s no secret that it’s been a great success in its first ten years, at the beginning under Clare Short and latterly under Hilary Benn. But aside from the internal reputation, what really matters is the external impact – and DFID’s been a source of real pride to those who care about international development. From its role in the campaign around debt reduction or its part in the sustained momentum which led to 2005 in Gleneagles, anyone active in politics is aware of DFID’s role and many see it as the best development agency in the world.

Looking back to your youth, can you remember an early occasion when you came across something that made you think, “This is not the way things are meant to be?”

My earliest years were spent in Community House which is the mainland base of the Iona Community,and we lived in a flat above that building in which there was the first meeting of the Scottish Council on African Questions which later became the anti-apartheid movement in Scotland.There was Alcoholics Anonymous,Gamblers Anonymous,the meeting of the shop stewards from the Upper Clyde ship builders – so I grew up in an atmosphere of intense

discussion about justice and equality.After that we moved to the manse of the parish where my father was minister for more than 30 years – and growing up in a Scottish manse, you encounter all sorts of people on your doorstep looking for help and assistance. My parents, partly because of their own upbringing, brought us up to look beyond the immediate community in which we were raised. I was delivering Christian Aid envelopes long before I was delivering leaflets for the Labour party.

The first speech I ever made in public was at the Renfrew Speakers’ Club just outside my present constituency, it was about the closure of the Linwood car plant. I joined the Labour Party very soon afterwards, because of the experience of mass unemployment in Renfrewshire,a community broken by de-industrialisation. It was a very immediate awareness of unemployment and the hopelessness that can be associated with it that brought me into party politics.

After school you spent some time in Kenya, helping building schools among other things, did that shape your understanding of wider global inequality?

By the time I was volunteering in Kenya I had one sister who’d worked in a hospital in Malawi,and another who’d spent a year at a leprosy project in Tanzania, so I was aware from within my family of the challenges people faced in poorer countries. But if I’m honest,one of the things that shocked me about Kenya was not just the poverty, but the wealth immediately adjacent to that poverty.To encounter abject suffering and poverty alongside ostentatious wealth was something I hadn’t really experienced before. That sort of encounter is aprofound reminder that we’re all in this together, and that we have obligations to each other which won’t be discharged by a few weeks work,however well intentioned. The pursuit of justice is not the work of a few weeks or a weekend rally, it’s the work of a lifetime and so challenging the structures of injustice seemed to me a way to engage in both party politics and then also in government.

You’ve already visited Sudan and Afghanistan, do you see any common lessons for international development?

It’s no coincidence that these two countries have both  experienced recent conflict and remain inherently fragile and vulnerable to further conflict. Much of the advice you read as an incoming Secretary of State in this department reminds you how close is the link between the experience of conflict and the experience of poverty. Conflict is both a cause and an effect of the kind of poverty seen in both of those countries.

Douglas Alexander 3Part of the challenge is to work effectively in those difficult environments because our core mission as a department is the eradication of poverty, and in the international community we need to do more across the piece to support countries emerging from conflict.We have to do more to meet our obligations in terms of the MDGs – for example working with other international partners to make sure the commitments at Gleneagles are honoured. But as those commitments on aid are a necessary but not sufficient condition for achieving the MDGs, we also have to create a trade system which allows people to trade their way out of poverty and to create wealth within and beyond their own borders.

At the same time we must make sure our structures of global governance, international institutions and  multilateral institutions, both hear the voice of the poor and are fit for today’s challenges, the kind of challenges that didn’t exist when many of them were created. So how we can reform the United Nations,how can we strengthen the voice of developing countries within the World Bank, how can we work more effectively with institutions like the IMF?

The newly launched International Health Partnership (see Global News page 29) aims to rationalise the way support to fight disease is provided. Is that a model for wider reforms?

We must do better as an international community at co-ordinating our international aid development assistance.That was graphically illustrated to me in Afghanistan, where you see a government seeking to build its capacity but confronted by an array of international partners all seeking ministerial time and separate assurances on how money is spent. But I came back clear about the importance,however difficult, of making budget support work. Eighty per cent of the aid we provide to Afghanistan is channelled through the Afghan Government and while we have the assurances we want – because it is channelled into health or education and so on through a World Bank Trust Fund – we also know we are helping the Afghan Government step up to its responsibilities within that country.

Yes,we need to do better in co-ordinating our aid and so a key element in the International Health Partnership is to ensure that where countries have assistance in relation to diseases such as AIDS or TB or malaria then we are also building their capacity to have self sustaining health services.

Where else would you like to see reform, say, in some of the global development institutions?

The UN is the most obvious example, and the Prime Minister has already done a lot of work in the high level panel arguing for a better alignment of UN efforts in particular countries. I’m very supportive of the ‘One UN’ thinking which says that in countries there should be one UN office, one UN budget, one UN Programme and one UN leader.

This kind of reform would lend a greater efficiency to UN efforts,and greater accountability for where responsibility lies within the UN structure in any given country. If we can co-ordinate better our international efforts but also our support to governments in developing countries then we have a win-win situation where we reduce the administrative burden on governments and avoid duplication in the donor community.

It is generally accepted that there has been great progress on debt and some on aid levels, but the DOHA trade round seems to be in an impasse. The signs are that you intend to align international development more closely with trade.

When Gordon Brown accepted leadership of the Labour Party, he said that he wanted to see a strong alignment between our aid, our debt reduction and our trade policies.And appointing me to DFID, he also asked me to chair the government committee responsible for trade policy to achieve that alignment. between what we are doing on debt, on aid, and on trade.

We need to recognise certain key facts. Firstly, no country in the last 50 years has lifted itself out of poverty without trading externally. Secondly, we have in the DOHA round the potential to secure a multi-lateral trading system that provides genuine opportunities for countries to trade their way out of poverty.Thirdly,we have to recognise the real disappointment within developing countries at the failure to make progress in the DOHA round. But the Prime Minister is working at Head of State level on this,and we continue to work within the EU to secure the development-centred objectives we want to secure in the DOHA round.

Half way to 2015 many of the MDGs are not on track – and many people remain ignorant of them.

Very early on as Prime Minister Gordon Brown set the scene at the UN by explaining that there is now an emergency in terms of meeting the MDGs and that we now need to see real progress.

Development education is all part of this – not just to help people understand what the MDGs are, but so we can deepen and broaden the growing consensus we now have around sustained rises in our aid budget and our commitment to development matters. My job is to advocate pro-poor policies, not just in government, but across a wide coalition of interest across British society who recognise that our world is linked by a web of mutuality, that we share responsibilities and concerns with people we have never met, people whose lives continue to affect us.

Douglas Alexander 2I think we can do more to make sure the public understand what development is about and to take pride in the UK’s role in it. I wish I could have taken a group of tax payers to the school in Afghanistan that I visited last week, and  introduced them to the  headteacher who taught for many  years under trees in the garden of that school, and then later under canvas but is now teaching in a fantastic school building. I wish people could have listened, as I did, to the schoolgirls there who had been denied an education under the Taliban, but now told me how they aspired to be doctors and engineers. I don’t think I’d have any difficulty convincing people that their money had been well spent, and that it was the right thing to do. It’s part of my responsibility to share those stories with the public.

In this smaller and interconnected world, the old arguments about international aid being the right thing to do are now, more closely than ever, lined up with arguments that it is the sensible thing to do.

In Afghanistan I met British commanders in Helmand who told me that the Taliban are now paying a dollar a time to children to dig up land mines, which in turn are used against British soldiers. And I also met members of the Halo Trust, a Scottish charity based just outside Dumfries, who are destroying thousands of landmines thanks to the support provided by the British government – which then allows people to cultivate land that has been beyond their reach. It’s a story that reflects a lot of the interconnectedness in this crowded self-interest, it is also that it is the right thing to do.And we have an obligation to be working in Afghanistan, where average life expectancy is 46, and one in four children die before their fifth birthday.This is a desperately poor country and we must work with the government there to make sure we address those needs.

What are your key hopes for your time at DFID?

Internationally our core mission is poverty reduction, and the framework for achieving poverty reduction is the MDGs – so my first aim is accelerated progress towards the MDGs. Secondly, I would like to see DFID become as self-defining to the people of the UK as the BBC, I’d like to see DFID become an essential part of who we are as British people and how we project ourselves to the world – an institution we are proud of because of the good it achieves.

Read other peoples' comments

Musa Tijjani, Kano, Nigeria
Indeed i am very happy to see that a man with a mission have take up the job of DFID. We are looking forward for the bounty that you will bring to the world especially; Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Auke Idzenga, Philippines
Man on the right job. Very impressed with his down to earth development view. Hope the government is serious in getting the money spending institutions like UN and WorldBank overhauled. The title of the article could as well have been man with passion or commitment. Just came back from Afghanistan installing Philippine made hydraulic ram pumps with our NGO AID Foundation (Ashden Award winner 2007). In the field with security problems. There are still people doing the real work and they need support. Secretary Alexander wish a lot courage.
Ray Newton, Edinburgh
Issue 39 was excellent in having a special focus on India and the interview with Douglas Alexander. However, it always surprises me that Labour ministers who have a trade union and socialist background do not highlight the great example of Kerela where the GDP is only average for India yet the high rate of women's literacy, child welfare social progress, working conditions, religious tolerance, anti-corruption are far higher than in other states even with higher levels of GDP and development aid. This can only be ascribed, as all studies show, to a left-wing history of political action. So why do the Labour leaders and this magazine avoid the real issues of progressive political ideas?

The pursuit of justice is not the work of a few weeks but of a lifetime.