Priti Patel: Britain will give £750m to Afghanistan aid projects

The International Development Secretary writes exclusively for ‘The Independent’

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When the world faces its biggest challenges, it looks to Britain to show the strong leadership needed to overcome them. As a member of the UN Security Council, a NATO state that spends 2 per cent of GDP on defence, a leader in the Commonwealth and a nation that is meeting our international commitments on aid, we are uniquely positioned to play an active role in making our world more peaceful and more prosperous. 

The Prime Minister has made clear that Britain will intensify this global leadership, not retreat from it. Part of what people voted for in the referendum was a strong, independent Britain, able to shape our own destiny on the world stage. This is what I campaigned for. And I believe that this means acting decisively to address the global challenges which threaten the interests of ordinary working people in the UK – things like conflict, terrorism, infectious disease, and uncontrolled migration. To fix these things, we need to address the underlying causes of misery and suffering around the world. Here in the UK, our government is committed to building a society that works for everyone – not just a privileged few. We must do exactly the same abroad.

Our aid budget has a crucial role to play in shaping the world according to our universal values of democracy, enterprise and justice. And Afghanistan offers a very specific example of how we can use our aid to both help the world’s poorest, and working people here in the UK.

Afghanistan: Kunduz civilians flee intense fighting

The UK’s presence in Afghanistan over the last decade has helped improve security and prevent it from once again becoming a base of operations for global terrorists that would threaten the streets of Britain. We have improved the lives of Afghans significantly – with millions more children in school, better healthcare, and greater prosperity. But huge challenges remain – not least the continuing threat from the Taliban.

That is why the UK will commit up to £750m, from the aid budget, to Afghanistan between 2017 and 2020 to help create a more stable country and improve people’s lives – particularly for women and girls. The money will support the provision of services like health and education. In addition we will contribute to the urgent UN flash appeal to help protect internally displaced people who have fled their homes. Our support will also help clear deadly mines from areas where people live – reducing the human suffering brought about by years of conflict, and letting children go back to school and people get back to their daily lives. The British people have a proud history of supporting mine clearance. And with conflicts burning across the globe, it is vital that Global Britain, while taking steps to end those conflicts, is also there to help with their deadly aftermath.

Crucially, our support to Afghanistan will help build a viable, long-term state in the face of significant Taliban aggression. We are making this commitment because it will make us safer and demonstrate to everyone that the international community will not walk away from Afghanistan. By making a clear commitment to that country, we are helping keep the UK safe – and helping to do justice to the sacrifices made there by our brave armed forces. This is aid working in the national interest.

Afghanistan: Tens of thousands flee Helmand’s fighting

Further, our support will help address the challenge of global migration. People from Afghanistan make up a significant proportion of the migrant and refugee population entering Europe – nearly a quarter of those arriving in Greece by some estimates. As the Prime Minister made clear at the United Nations last month, our aid budget has a huge role to play in creating the jobs and economic opportunities that give people in the world’s poorest countries a better alternative than risking the journey to Europe. In the long run, we will only stop people drowning in the Mediterranean if we tackle the instability that drives people to take such a risk. 

Faced with the uncertain world we see around us today, using aid in the way I have described is a sensible, prudent and strategic policy. But the Labour Party have, in a knee-jerk way, attacked the very idea of using UK aid in the national interest. They appear to believe in a false choice: that you can either help the world’s poorest or you can do what helps Britain. They fail to realise that tackling poverty is in the UK’s national interest. Extreme poverty is not only a burning injustice in the world; it is also the incubator for radicalisation, human misery, disease and the driver of mass migration.     

Artists bring beauty of Afghanistan to US

The tragic irony is that the Labour Party is now run by people who genuinely believe in the socialist policies which held back development and poverty reduction around the world in the last century – and whose consignment to history has allowed literally hundreds of millions of the world’s most vulnerable people to escape poverty. But not only are they out of touch with economic reality. They are also out of touch with the concerns and interests of the British people – just as they are with so many other issues, from immigration to defence.

Labour’s policy is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of our complex, conflicted world. They have been quick to criticise the fact that UK aid is being used to make countries more stable by bolstering security and justice.  Yet, improving the security of fragile states is vital to ensure our aid reaches those at risk and to prevent people from becoming trapped in poverty. If your country isn’t stable and free from the threat of violence then you can’t get to work, you can’t get to the local clinic and your children can’t go to school.

Thousands lack clean water in Afghanistan

I hope that instead of searching for dividing lines, people of goodwill across the political spectrum will join together in standing up for universal humanitarian values – even as we see them flouted in places like Syria. The recent bombing of a humanitarian convoy in Aleppo is an assault on our humanity. Aid workers were killed for simply trying to deliver much need help and support to a country which has known little more than conflict, violence and hunger for five years. These extremely brave humanitarians represent the best of us, while those who prolong the suffering in Syria represent quite the opposite. We must show leadership, and steel, in the face of conflict, disease and poverty.

This global leadership cannot be taken for granted though. In recent days it has become clear that at the next election, people will face a simple choice over who represents Britain on the world stage. Do they chose a Labour Party who believe that they have a free pass over scrutiny of their policy towards international development, but whose failed and outdated ideology would wreck the UK economy and reduce our ability to deliver aid across the globe? Or do they choose a Conservative Party who will champion the world’s poorest and Global Britain – and at the same time demonstrate how the UK aid budget helps those paying for it? I believe that the right choice is clear – for us in the UK, and for people around the world. 

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