Short reveals mission to end world poverty

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A "major shift" in government policy on aid was signalled yesterday by Clare Short in her first major speech since becoming Secretary of State for International Development.

Speaking at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, she criticised the weight given to "political and commercial considerations" by the former Tory government.

But she spoke in upbeat terms of global change, suggesting that her own department could be redundant within a generation, because of the elimination of world poverty - "not alleviate, eliminate". She argued: "I hope that within 25 to 30 years both the aid programme and my department will be closed down because our basic task has been accomplished."

She insisted, too, that there was no compassion fatigue, as it is usually understood. "The syndrome described as compassion fatigue is not a loss of compassion, but a general despondency because progress seems so evasive. I believe that as we set targets and begin to meet them, public support for development will grow."

She had warm words for Baroness Chalker, her predecessor at the department, then known as the Overseas Development Administration. "I respect and admire Lynda Chalker for the efforts that she made to sustain the quality and quantity of the aid programme."

But she insisted that Baroness Chalker was working with her hands tied, because of the attitudes of the previous government. "She was fighting a battle against impossible odds."

She said that, given the public emphasis placed by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, on "ethical considerations" in foreign policy, she would be less at odds with the politically minded Foreign Office than Lady Chalker was.

She referred to the problems which the former government created for itself, with the Pergau dam affair, when aid funds were spent on commercial projects. But she acknowledged that there was still likely to be "creative tension" between her department and the Foreign Secretary.

Ms Short reiterated Labour's target of increasing the size of the aid programme, to match a United Nations target of 0.7 per cent, while this year staying "within existing departmental budgets". But, when asked to give a date for achieving the 0.7 per cent figure, she was dismissive. "I am increasingly exasperated by those who think that the size of the aid budget is the only important thing," she said.

Ms Short said it was "essential" to ensure coherence between the UK aid programme, on the one hand, and policy on trade and debt, on the other. "It is precisely to give that sort of coherence that the Department of International Development has been created." The new department comes with a seat at the Cabinet table attached, a personal victory for Ms Short.