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Spelman: You can't spin global poverty

Speech to Conservative Spring Forum 2002

My debut as Shadow Secretary of State for International Development has been nothing short of a baptism of fire. September 11th has thrust this normally cinderella subject into the spotlight. Appointed on September 13th we were straight into an international crisis, a crisis with all the potential for sparking a Third World War.

Thank god many of the gloomy predictions of Labour's left wing proved spurious. Our leader's decision to give the Government bi-partisan support throughout the campaign has been entirely vindicated. He came across as a statesman and our party as a responsible, resolute and reliable Opposition. It was both the right thing to do, and the right thing for us.

My opposite number, Clare Short has a reputation for enjoying a good spat. But this time her adversaries were on her own backbenches and she got full support from me. As a result she finds it very hard to be scathing with me and thus often she seems disarmed by my gentle reason. She knows now that the Conservatives are serious about International Development and she cannot levy the charge that we lack heart in this matter.

People say she walks on water because she is often out of step with her own party leadership. She openly challenges many of the Government's decisions exposing the deep divides that exist in Labour, for which we should be grateful. She may sometimes seem like a thorn in Tony Blair's side but deep down I suspect it suits him to have her ventilate the dissent within his own party.

Jenny Tonge the Lib/Dem spokesman on International Development does a very good job of shooting herself in the foot. Remember her naïve soundbite when she called for Afghanistan to be 'bombed with food', they did, and what happened? Two houses collapsed in the process.

If you want further evidence of Liberal Dem naivety just look at their stance on Zimbabwe. In April 2000, Jenny Tonge was chastising Conservatives for being nasty to poor Mr Mugabe. She helpfully reminded us all that Mugabe was a democratically elected leader. Some democracy. Some leader. Surprise surprise all Dr Tongue's press releases about Zimbabwe have had to be taken off the Lib/Dem website.

Nearer to home she issued a press release describing her visit to a Children's Hospice. Apparently she was impressed by the children's courage- only problem, the hospice hasn't yet been built- Nice one Jenny!

One wonders if the Lib /Dems are capable of organising a jumble sale let alone the country.

International Development is an area ripe for new ideas. Clare Short and I may not go in for fisticuffs over the ballot box but there are real differences in our approach to Third World problems. Just last week while Clare Short was calling for aid to be withheld from Tanzania. I argued that she was targeting the wrong part of the problem. By withholding aid, the only people she was harming were the people of Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world.

I want our approach to the problems of the Developing World to be practical. I want to encourage independence not dependency. Give people the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty. This means revamping debt relief and freeing world markets to make it easier for poor countries to export their produce .Giving people a decent education because from education flows health, wealth and a real future. Currently every minute a woman dies while pregnant or giving birth in the Developing World, 7,000 people die of AIDs every day in Africa, 200 million Africans live on less than a dollar a day, a quarter of children in Afghanistan die before the age of five. This tragic litany can make people feel it's all hopeless but who is it running a local charity shop, raising funds, and collecting for charities, more often than not it will be a Conservative. We know an individual can make a difference. International Development is where the Conservatives, traditionally generous donors, can show their heart and mean it.

I am no exception. When I went out to the Afghan border before Christmas it was not just to gawp at the problems there but to try and make a difference. I discovered that a local charity which treats the victims of landmines had just lost their only evacuation vehicle. I mentally resolved to raise the money to replace it. I am delighted to say that with the help of a local agency, Islamic Relief, I have already raised over £50,000 and no doubt some of you have been donors to this Appeal - for which I say a big thank you. If nothing else this shows that Conservatives care and that we put it into action. Rhetoric is all very good, but it doesn't save lives. Conservatives are above all practical - and we can be justifiably proud of th

I would venture that this small gesture has more real impact than the sight of Tony Blair bestriding the continent of Africa like some Western Medicine Man 'healing the scars' of that continent. Apart from the rather grandiose idea what actually did he achieve? Particularly as he studiously avoided the one area of Africa that was in the spotlight and relevant to this country at the time, namely Zimbabwe.

Can anybody give me one example of where Tony Blair's newly discovered passion for Africa has made one jot of difference to the lives of people on that continent? That's all I'm asking for - one example? No, I didn't think so. In international development, like so many other areas of government, the emphasis is on style at the expense of delivery. Well, you can't spin global poverty. Africans don't want Tony to feel their pain - they want actions, not rhetoric.

International development is about helping the most vulnerable. We want to make others' lives better..

And I'll tell you who they are not . The poorest people in the world are NOT Labour Party donors. If Lakshmi Mittal can afford to give £125,000 to the Labour Party, and £400,000 to a campaign to introduce Tariffs in America, he is not deserving of UK aid. Clare Short's department has now provided Mr Mittal with three loans totalling £153 million. You should not be able to buy international development.

I want to show that we care about international development we care because we have learnt from experience the cost of turning your back on a problem: in 1938 Neville Chamberlain famously described Czechoslovakia as 'the far away country of which we know little'. Conservatives must never be satisfied with knowing little. Conservatives are above all practical and clear-headed - and this must infuse our policy on international development. We're not about grand gestures or media grandstanding. Above all we are practical and realistic.

The Conservative Party has achieved great things in the past - in Britain and the world. Now more than ever we have to show that we can achieve great things in the future.

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