How missionaries spurred Brown to tackle poverty

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown cast aside his dour image yesterday to talk openly about how his childhood memories of missionaries from Africa speaking in his father's church in Scotland had spurred him to fight poverty.

Gordon Brown cast aside his dour image yesterday to talk openly about how his childhood memories of missionaries from Africa speaking in his father's church in Scotland had spurred him to fight poverty.

In an unusually relaxed interview with British journalists accompanying him on a four-nation tour of the continent, Mr Brown spoke of his childhood in Kirkcaldy, Fife, and told how the births of his two children had brought him closer to the suffering of millions.

The trip has been widely seen as an attempt to show Mr Brown as a world statesman and prime minister-in-waiting. He has been greeted by crowds and held talks with presidents and prime ministers at a time when speculation about the state of his relationship with Tony Blair has dominated the news in the UK.

The Chancellor has also made major announcements on debt relief covering about 70 developing countries and will next week chair meetings of the Commission for Africa which will concentrate on Britain's efforts to increase aid during its presidency of the G7 (plus Russia, known as the G8).

He has also been on a full charm offensive in his attempts to publicise the plight of Africa, briefing journalists four or five times a day. Yesterday, Mr Brown spoke of his father, John, and the missionaries who came to his church. Their talks and sermons, Mr Brown said, had given him a concern for the problems of Africa from an early age.

He said: "My father was a Church of Scotland minister and there were many contacts between the Church of Scotland and Africa. We repeatedly heard the stories of people coming back from Africa including this area, Malawi and Kenya, telling us what needed to be done.

"I think from a very, very early age, you were hearing the tragedies and tribulations of Africa, but also the fondness of people for the continent."

He talked about his wife, Sarah, who spent her first seven years in Dar es Salaam and attended an international school in the city. Her mother ran a nursery, and her father worked as an educational publisher. The Chancellor said he hoped to bring his 15-month-old son John to the Tanzanian city one day. Mr Brown made a fleeting visit to the International School of Tanganika where she studied.

He spoke about the plight of a 12-year-old girl he met on Thursday who had lost her parents to Aids and was infected with HIV. He was asked whether having children had influenced his attitudes towards the poverty of the young people he had met.

Mr Brown, whose daughter Jennifer died days after she was born prematurely, paused. He said: "Yes. It is so important. You are looking into the eyes of children all the time and you ask what their prospects are going to be. Remember, Sarah and I had two children and it does influence you when you see the problems that some of those young kids' faces.

"When I saw a 12-year-old who will probably die within the next year, which is almost certainly preventable, and you see kids clearly malnourished, something has to be done. It's right to tell the G7 and finance ministers and politicians that as long as we do not act, all the promises we make to children, to mothers, to parents, are never going to be redeemed.

"You can hold international conferences and make promises but if you see that the undertakings are not being redeemed you have to act."

Mr Brown, who has toured some of the poorest parts of Kenya and Tanzania during his four-day fact-finding trip, said: "Over the past day or two, I have seen grinding, abject, relentless poverty. We have had a glimpse of the aching souls of the left-out millions. There is also the hope in the eyes of children and young people."

Mr Brown shrugged off questions about the possibility of being offered the post of foreign secretary after the General Election, which is expected in May. He said: "As you can see, I am happy doing the job I am doing."

The Chancellor said he wanted the Third World and the West to "open their books" to public scrutiny. He said he wanted new international rules to stamp out corruption which blighted Third World governments, and said Britain hoped to secure a new system of independent reports on the true state of government finances around the world to ensure aid money was spent wisely.

He also demanded that Europe publish the full consequences of trade tariffs and protectionism on agriculture and other goods which stifle progress in the developing world. He said: "People understand you can no longer hide behind closed doors, [making] secret, unannounced decisions which hide the truth."