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Leading article: No room for naivety in aid policy

It is admirable that the Equalities Minister should be pressing to keep the treatment of women at the forefront of the Government's discussions with foreign nations. So should Foreign Office ministers, and those from the Department for International Development. But more important still is to show a more sophisticated understand of political realities on the ground.

There is something naïve about the suggestion by Lynne Featherstone that countries that turn a blind eye to violence and prejudice against women should be threatened with losing British aid money. Work with women is at the heart of much development work overseas. Experience over the past two decades – since aid shifted from being a tool of foreign policy to one aimed at genuinely helping the poorest people – has shown that providing women, in particular, with money, skills and confidence has a disproportionately beneficial impact on the effective alleviation of poverty.

But prejudice against women is deeply entrenched in many cultures. Tackling it is a long, slow and painstaking business. Cutting off aid is a nuclear option which may make a big one-off gesture but then reduces influence on the ground. Waving a big stick smacks too much of post-colonial imperialism; something more subtle and more sustained is required.

Ms Featherstone expresses concern about Afghanistan. One of the great success stories of the past decade in that battered country is that the number of girls enrolling in school has, thanks to Western aid, risen from zero to more than 2.5 million. Sadly, the local patriarchal culture insists they quit school when they enter their teens. The problem is that most teachers are men. The way to tackle it is not to issue an ultimatum from London. Rather, it is to train girls to become teachers. A start has been made; and it means more aid, rather than less.

If Ms Featherstone really fears for the position of women in Afghanistan after Nato's troops leave, she would do better to attend to the detail of how to help win the long, incremental battle to empower them. That would pay far greater dividends than blustering and threats from far-off Westminster.