Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Andrew Mitchell, the great and the good, and me

Yesterday evening I was invited to a meeting between Andrew Mitchell, the British secretary of state for international development, and BOND - an overarching body for Britain's non-governmental organisations. The BOND was made up of senior people from many of Britain's most important health and development campaigns,

So there we were, in the boardroom of the United Nations Foundation in New York: the minister, the great and good of the British development world and, er, me.

It is a tribute to the mystique that attaches to blogging - and more to the work and contacts of my new friends in Oxfam - that I was there. As the chair of the meeting said (in a friendly way), "I'm not sure why we have a blogger here, but that's the modern world."

There was time before Mitchell arrived for a pre-meeting among the BOND people. As it turned out, Mitchell was delayed at an earlier event ("there were four speeches, and mine was by far the shortest"), so there was plenty of time for a pre-meeting.

The danger with this sort of coalition is that the individual members want to be able to go back to their home organisations and report that they raised the point that most concerns that organisation. The result is a staccato question-and-answer session with no real debate or overall coherence.

So we went round the table to find out what those important points were - I decided I had nothing to contribute at this point - then grouped them together under four headings and decided on the order in which they would be raised.

Mitchell arrived late and full of apologies. He has the full head of prematurely grey hair that seems fashionable at the moment (ask for an Assange cut). He was also wearing a charity wristband - something, say, Willie Whitelaw would never have done. But in a nice traditional Tory touch, it matched his tie.

He held the development brief for five years before the Conservatives came to power so he knows it well, despite his opening remark that he was just "the new kid on the block".

It is significant that David Cameron has always promised to maintain spending on overseas development, despite the pressures on spending elsewhere. In part this is a sign that he recognises the depth pf the problems involved. But it also had a lot to do with convincing people that the Conservatives were no longer the nasty party and attracting back the liberally minded voters who have not supported his party for 20 years.

Anyway, I shall take you through the discussion that took place under the four headings, though, wittingly or not, Mitchell rather subverted this by trying to go around the table for comments when the BOND people had already decided who would ask about what.

The first topic was the BOND members' concern that there should be a clear programme of activities resulting from the MDG summit, not just windy rhetoric. Mitchell said that he shared this view entirely but discussions between governments were still continuing.

I was later told that the best guide to the British government's thinking on this point and much else to do with the summit is a recent Guardian article by Larry Elliott. He was very well briefed before he wrote it.

An interesting point raised by Mitchell himself was the importance of civil society holding governments to account both in the West and the Third World. He said that up to 5 per cent of the aid budget would be give to NGOs in the developing countries to help them scrutinise how the rest was spent by governments.

This was news to me and sounds a very good idea. Mitchell said it had also been in Labour's last manifesto but that it had originated with the Conservatives.

Mitchell said that greater transparency by the British government would help the Third World. He had seen children pressed up against the fence with their laptops at an airport in Malawi to use the free broadband. Information published in Britain could be read all around the world.

He also asked why the NGO sector was so much more effective at holding government to account in Britain than it was in many other developed countries (it would be invidious to mention France and Italy in this context). Perhaps this was flattery, but I don't think so.

We then moved on to the second point, which was the Robin Hood Tax or FTT - Financial Transactions Tax. Mitchell said that this was a matter for George Osborne not him, but that Osborne was not dismissive of it.

After the meeting I asked David Hillman from Stamp Out Poverty for some good resources on this tax. He suggested the organisation's own website and also The Robin Hood Tax.

The third subject was global warming. Mitchell said that government departments were learning to work more closely on this - I still get a little frisson of joy when I hear Conservative ministers say things like "I talk often to Chris Huhne on climate change".

And finally there was health, where his answers left some people around the table disappointed. Far from my presence being resented, I had people coming up to me saying "I hope you are going to blog that fact that he didn't respond to the question on the health workforce."

Well, I will, because it is estimated that another 3.5m health workers of various kinds are needed to reach the Millennium Development Goals and without them it is not going to happen.

So that was Andrew Mitchell and BOND. It was an education for me in the Sir Humphrey level of the NGO world.

Nick Clegg is meeting BOND tomorrow. I will get to that meeting too if I can.

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