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24 May 2014
Developing stage

Developing stage

Justine Greening was aged just 11 when, queuing up at lunchtime at her comprehensive in Rotherham, a group of older white boys threw a younger Asian boy to one side. “I was shocked, upset and I just thought, ‘this is completely wrong’. But I was this small girl and didn’t know what I could do to stop it. It did, however, leave me with a deep sense of frustration at not being in a position then to do something about it. That incident may have been more than a few years ago but there are still hundreds of millions of people today who have different rights, a different say, and different prospects in this world purely because of what they are: a woman.”

Improving the prospects for girls and women in the developing countries that the Department for International Development (DfID) works in is an overt priority ahead of Prime Minister David Cameron hosting Britain’s first Girls’ Summit in July. Its aim will be to galvanise international efforts to end female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage, and follows new rules that made their way through Westminster in March that legally require DfID to consider how the development assistance it gives will contribute to reducing gender inequality.

The Secretary of State for International Development described the Rotherham school incident in opening remarks at the University of Warwick – where she had been invited to deliver the inaugural international development annual public lecture – a few hours after our interview. She is, as is often the case, travelling. This time, though, not to the likes of Washington or Beijing – both of which she has visited in the previous three weeks – but to Birmingham, to mark the work of Islamic Relief on the charity’s 30th anniversary.

It is events linked to another anniversary – that of the 307th of the Act of Union between Scotland and England, which falls, fittingly, on the day Greening speaks to Holyrood – that her department has attracted more headlines for of late. A few weeks earlier, the Secretary of State made a rather rare foray into the independence referendum, claiming that aid efforts would be undermined by a ‘Yes’ vote. ‘We can do more good overseas if we stay united at home’, a comment piece written by Greening for the Sunday Times was headed. The headline soon became ‘Scottish independence ‘would harm world’s poorest’ and so a furious reaction from the Scottish Government then swiftly followed.

I ask whether, in the cold light of day, it was a wise intervention to make. “Yes, absolutely,” she replies briskly. “It’s saying that essentially, the United Kingdom punches above its weight when it comes to international development. We do some amazing work around the world that gets incredible results and I think [that] if there is one place where the UK team works effectively, it’s international development. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Greening is adamant this was not a case of using the poorest in the world as a “political football” – as her equivalent at Holyrood, Humza Yousaf, fumed – but rather a “very positive” intervention. “I think the response from the SNP was really the usual one to anybody who raises a different point of view to one that they hold on anything, actually, which was to simply try and shout it down.”

In truth, Greening’s most contentious comments in the Sunday Times largely owe their roots to a speech delivered ten days earlier. The MP for Putney, Roehampton and Southfields had stepped off a plane from China and made her way straight to a Network of International Development Organisations in Scotland (NIDOS) conference. “What is undeniable to me – looking at all of the UK’s great work – is that we have a far bigger impact on the lives of the world’s neediest people precisely because we have been united in this work,” she told an audience gathered in Glasgow. “As the world’s second biggest aid donor, the UK can make truly transformative interventions, as economies of scale enable us to squeeze the maximum value for money out of every penny we spend. As one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and with our own place on the board of the World Bank, the UK can ensure core values shared right across the whole of the UK are reflected at the top of these vital global institutions.”

The words appeared almost verbatim in the letter penned by Greening published thereafter. If a day is a long time in politics, though, then ten is a lifetime. Her intervention was immediately cast in the shadow of Lord Robertson’s earlier that week. A ‘Yes’ vote had become a potential boost for the world’s “forces of darkness” while simultaneously a snub to the world’s “poorest people”. “Everybody in this debate is going to talk about it in terms of how they feel and… I feel like the UK has been the ultimate foreign policy partnership that the world has seen, it’s been an amazing force for good and it has been a partnership that has punched above our weight internationally,” says Greening, trying her best to avoid being drawn on the intemperate language the former UK defence secretary and Nato secretary general had opted to use.

She shrugs off a suggestion that the timing of her intervention was unfortunate. Surely, however, referencing “forces of darkness” set to descend post-September does not help the cause she and other colleagues in the unionist camp are trying to preserve? Greening laughs unconvincingly. “Well, you know, I think Lord Robertson wanted to have his say. But I think ultimately people are going to see beyond the rhetoric and I believe they’re quite pragmatic at being able to see beyond the rhetoric and then look at the points that are being made and reflect on what they think the right direction for Scotland is. I want Scotland to remain part of what has been an incredibly successful United Kingdom partnership.”

So too do others across the international arena, she claims. “I spend a lot of my time outside of the UK in other countries, some of them have instability and they’re trying to get stability back and you know, they’re really interested and when they see how successful the United Kingdom has been as a country, they’re really interested that any part of the UK would want to walk away from that because, from their perspective, they see us as having played an incredible role, particularly around development, and they’d like to see that continue, so they’re slightly perplexed, in some respects, that one bit of the UK would want to go it alone and walk away from such a successful partnership.”

It’s a rather sketchy assessment that doesn’t exactly lend itself to too much scrutiny. Then again, neither do the assertions of the Scottish Government, suggests Greening, urging the SNP to “fess up”, in detail, on how an independent Scotland would run its development programme. Perhaps, the more worrying uncertainty for the 600 or so DfID employees in East Kilbride is their future employment status. “It’s hard to see how you’d have a joint headquarters for the UK that wasn’t in the UK,” says Greening, echoing comments she made before MPs on the Commons International Development Committee last November.

Greening has already outlined her belief that economic development must be DfID’s next “top priority”. To that end, in January she announced plans to more than double the amount spent on economic development, signalling a radical shift in policy designed to make it easier to do business in developing countries. “So many of the countries that we are working with are now quite rapidly growing economies, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, and actually, we need to help those economies grow in a way that can really see the maximum number of people lifted out of poverty through jobs. And that’s what they want our help on and I think we need to be willing to step up to that challenge and work with them to help them build economic growth that’s inclusive and that really does lift the maximum number of people out of poverty. If you look at how countries like China and India have significantly reduced poverty, the reason why is economic growth. We know that, those countries know that, and that is why we want to work on it together.”

It is no secret that the Conservatives’ pledge to ringfence foreign aid spending has stoked controversy, not least among David Cameron’s backbenchers. On the eve of this interview, the member for Clacton, Douglas Carswell MP, even suggests “perhaps the real purpose of UK aid spending is to buy a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling amongst the chattering classes”. If reports of Greening’s irascible entrance into the role a year-and-a-half ago are to be believed – dumped from the transport brief over disagreement on a third runway at Heathrow, she indelicately reminded the PM that she had not entered politics to distribute money to people in the Third World – then Carswell’s assessment doesn’t exactly chime.

Asked if this revised focus by DfID makes the case for ringfencing foreign aid more palatable, Greening replies: “I think it’s important that as part of international development people can see that part of what it does isn’t just around helping countries stay stable, it’s actually helping them develop. And that is in our interest because those are the next markets that we want British exports to be going to and indeed, increasingly, UK companies are partnering up with the Department for International Development to become part of that development push.” She points to a strategic partnership signed with the London Stock Exchange Group earlier this year and the work that has ensued in the east African state of Tanzania. “All of those relationships are incredibly powerful, and a win-win for both countries concerned.”

The telltale signs of Greening’s background in business – she was a finance manager at Centrica with an MBA from London Business School having also had spells at GSK and PwC – shaping her decisions in international development are evident. Asked, for instance, why DfID’s work merits special treatment over and above many others, she embarks on an answer that leans more heavily on politics than principles. “We made a promise that we would meet our 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income being invested in international development – that’s the promise that we made as a party and that the Coalition Government made in its coalition agreement and we have delivered on that promise. That is why it is important. It is important, though, that we make sure we get value for money, that we invest in results that really do make a difference in terms of alleviating poverty, and that we clearly have a lens on what is in the UK’s interest as well, which is seeing countries stay stable and seeing countries develop so that they can become our trading partners in the future.”

Perhaps an innocent, albeit glaring omission, Greening touches on the first part of the sentence contained within the coalition agreement – ‘we will honour our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on overseas aid from 2013’ – whilst skirting over the second – ‘and to enshrine this commitment in law’. “It’s something that we still want to see happen but I think the reality is the way we’ve implemented 0.7 per cent is as if it is already enshrined in law. It’s not something that the last government managed to do in 13 years in power, but what we’ve tried to focus on within parliament is making sure that we’ve passed the Bills that can get our economy back on track, get our public finances back into shape, sort out our schools and make sure we’re investing in skills. That has been the priority. But we still want to ultimately see 0.7 per cent enshrined in law.”

Will it be before the next parliamentary elections at Westminster?

“We’ve got the Queen’s Speech coming up and, obviously, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Is the Bill ready to be introduced?

“The Bill is ready.”

Still, ‘want to see happen’ is somewhat short of ‘fully committed’ to see happen, as Downing Street has insisted for some time now. “We have always been clear that we’ll introduce the Bill when parliamentary time allows, but I think most people in the UK will think it’s quite pragmatic for us to use the parliamentary time we’ve had as a government to focus on [the] key things that need laws passing for us to be able to do them,” says Greening, citing progress on the commitment itself even if progress on the legislation has stalled.

“Ultimately,” she adds, “the most important thing is what we’re actually doing.”

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