Chalker in lonely fight for aid to Third World

Development debate: 'Bleeding hearts' and pragmatists vie for influence
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The Independent Online
STEVE CRAWSHAW

There was a curious incident in Nairobi last summer, when the Overseas Development Minister, Baroness Chalker of Wallasey, announced that President Daniel arap Moi would not receive further programme aid until he showed a greater commitment to democratic rights and economic reform.

President Moi, not famous for his political tolerance, exploded. He raged against the "bossy", "impolite" and "contemptuous" Lady Chalker. More interestingly, the Foreign Office - of which the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) is part - slapped Lady Chalker down. The High Commissioner in Nairobi, apparently under instructions from London, gave a press conference at which, in effect, he disowned Lynda Chalker and the fuss she had caused. He demanded an end to "speculation and media over-reaction".

The Nairobi episode was one of the clearest recent examples of conflict between the diplomatic and development wing of the Foreign Office, where the old-school "pragmatists" put pressure on the more down-to-earth ODA.

Frequently, "pragmatism" has proved to be diplo-speak for "short-sightedness" - supporting regimes, for reasons of "stability", whose sell-by date has long been reached. But the much-vaunted concentration on stability can often backfire. Now, the ODA seems keen to stake out its own territory, where the stability-above-all merchants no longer call all the shots.

Arguments erupted publicly once more this week - on the occasion of a speech by Lady Chalker at the Royal Institute of International Affairs - over the new policy of concentrating British aid on a limited number of countries, and over a 5 per cent cut in British aid in the coming year (which Lady Chalker herself had tried to resist).

But finances are only one aspect of the battles Lady Chalker is now fighting. She is involved in a constant jockeying for position, in trying to raise the status of the not-quite-ministry which she heads - implicitly, in order to prevent a repeat of last year's episode in Nairobi.

Lady Chalker is head of what might be called the bleeding-hearts division of the Foreign Office. Interestingly, however, her line on Bad Guys tends to be tougher than that of the Foreign Office itself.

"We're essentially a practical department. We're more likely to take a long-term view than other government departments," she argues. ODA officials emphasise the dangers of short-termism: "Stability now does not necessarily mean stability in five years' time." Lady Chalker insists, too, that the ODA's views are now taken more seriously: "We've strengthened the consulting process, before decisions are taken. It's not perfect, but it's much better than it was."

The arguments over money are only one element. The ODA's present shake- up will map out its direction for the years to come. Above all, sustainable growth, good economics and good government are now seen as interlinked when making decisions about aid.

Nor is this likely to change. Lady Chalker herself, while ritually denying that Labour might come to power, notes that "continuity is essential". She points out, too: "There is a bipartisanship - and I've worked to build that." That attitude seems likely to survive a change of government.

Already a transformation has begun, with what Lady Chalker describes as "profound changes" in recent years. Encouraging political and economic reform, she says, "has become one of our top priorities".

Lady Chalker has no time for those Tory sceptics who argue that government aid is unnecessary, and that private money can fill the gap: "Private money cannot build institutions overseas. You will not get private investment into sorting out a proper taxation system and so on. There is a need for public money, which can pave the way for the private money."

She has been a minister for an unbroken 17 years, and the 53-year-old baroness has just celebrated 10 years as a minister at the Foreign Office, including seven at the ODA.

She is not in the Cabinet, which has been interpreted as a slap in the face for her and for the status of the ODA. Unsurprisingly, she denies it. "Of course, I'd love to be in the Cabinet . . . But I don't think it would help me personally, as a minister. My colleagues know that I will shout, if something needs to be shouted about."

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