Letter published in The Guardian on 5 June 2010
Andrew Mitchell, the new secretary of state for international development, has announced a new regime of transparency and accountability in how Britain's aid is spent. Welcome as that is, questions remain about what to measure, which means discussing the aims, and how to do it without distorting those aims.
Those questions were covered by a well of silence in Mr Mitchell's speech, and they are far more important than the issue you raised in your editorial (4 June) of whether the commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on development aid is reliable. In a radio interview yesterday Mr Mitchell expressed frustration that we were "miles off" the millennium development goals. True, but to genuinely reduce poverty will require a new approach to aid that deals with the real world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
In those countries receiving British aid where progress is slowest, the problem is not simply poverty but armed violence and the lack of good government. Helping people to create their own transparent and effective governments has long been overlooked. It's not hard to see why; instead of concrete development projects, it requires a politically awkward engagement in a country's affairs.
But where there is fragility and violence, achieving peace and stability comes first. After all, you cannot travel to the new school or hospital if you might be abducted by rebels on the way.
In opposition Mr Mitchell gave every indication of understanding this point. But to act on it in government will require challenging vested interests in the status quo. Not to do so, however, would be to miss the policymaking opportunity of a generation.
Secretary general, International Alert