This afternoon, the Minister for International Development, Douglas Alexander MP, opened the Edinburgh World Justice Festival, with a speech at City Chambers. The EWJF aims to tackle the issues surrounding development, global finance and government spending on healthcare with a series of events running until 31st May 2009. Mr Alexander spoke of his work as head of DFID and fielded questions from experts on aid and development.
Representatives from charities, newspapers and educational establishments attended the talk and just a stone’s throw from the statue of Adam Smith, they questioned the wisdom of a free market economy, inherent inequalities in trade negotiations and the assumptions about global finance made by government departments.
Benedict Southworth, of the World Development Movement, was the first to challenge the cabinet minister on government attitudes towards aid, suggesting that civil servants and ministers from departments other than DfID might view its work as that of a “global soup kitchen”. Mr Alexander defended the record of other government departments, saying that policies such as tax credits – controlled by other ministers – are an important part of reducing poverty in Britain and the continuing generous budget for the work of DfID was in part thanks to a progressive attitude in the Treasury.
Prof Allyson Pollock, Head of the Centre for International Public Health Policy at the University of Edinburgh, asked about the self-serving nature of some aid programs, whereby governments pour money into aid industries which benefit their own economies through expensive contracts for pharmaceuticals, aid workers, jeeps and public private partnerships (PPPs).
Douglas Alexander MP responded that the sole purpose of DFID’s work is the reduction of poverty and that there is no tacked-on policy of necessarily having to benefit British business at the same time. He also agreed with Prof. Pollock that vertical disease programs which target individual maladies are not the ideal approach to supporting third world healthcare but underlined that he doesn’t begrudge the helpful work of President’s Malaria Initiative or the Gates Foundation, rather that his department will work with existing programs to try and develop effective overall health systems.
He recalled a conversation with Gordon Brown about the effective publicity which surrounds single-disease campaigns after an overall approach promoted by the PM and DFID Minister – the International Health Partnership – failed to garner many headlines. The Prime Minister commented that single disease campaigns seemed to get more attention. The minister for International Development pointed out that although more effective in the long term, committing to developing indigenous healthcare capacity can be a tough sell compared to straightforward AIDS or malaria programs.
Several challenging questions from the audience then ensued with discussion about responsibility for poverty in the third world stemming from Cold War aid tactics, the importance of public procurement policies committing to buy Fairtrade goods and the pitfalls of effective bargaining power for third world countries in multilateral trade agreements.
In answering the first question, Mr Alexander recalled a trip to meet the President in Chile where an official greeted him on behalf of General Pinochet before correcting himself. This clearly struck a chord with the laughing audience.
Secondly, Mr Alexander talked about a recent meeting with Bill Clinton and the heads of Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer about Fairtrade goods. He said that work was progressing on expanding the range of accredited products and expanding the markets in which the products are available. He recalled drinking “campaign coffee” as a child and lauded the modern Fairtrade products for being infinitely more drinkable.
On the third point, Mr Alexander once again defended multilateral trade agreements as being far superior to bilateral trade agreements in which there is a definite gulf of power between one country and another. However, he still sees that there could be improvements made to the way in which the World Trade Organisation works. He also warned against making assumptions about what third world countries want in terms of international trade of goods and services. The minister spoke of a meeting with the President of the Philippines whereby President Arroyo insisted that the export of Philippine nurses was in the national interest. She was proud of the high level of skill in her nation’s nursing staff and the remittances earned by the nurses working abroad was a central pillar of the government’s financial plan.
The meeting ended with a vote of thanks for the Secretary of State for International Development from Mike Kirby, Convener of UNISON Scotland.