So let's debate the aid business: Arms sales will not be linked to overseas aid while I am minister, says Lynda Chalker

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THE LAST few weeks have seen a lot of comment on the British aid programme. Good, I want people to know what we do with taxpayers' money. But a lot of the comments have been inaccurate, indeed positively misleading.

I am not going to go into detail here on the Pergau project. The Government stands by its decision to proceed with it. The Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is conducting an inquiry. The Government will co-operate fully.

Let me tell you the reality of British aid. The real focus of British aid - during my time and before - has been to help the poorest countries to raise the standard of living of their people. Especially their poorest people. To get out of the awful grind of poverty. To avoid that 10-mile walk to get clean water. To give people the chance of an education so that they, and their children, can live a better life than their parents. To give people access to those services that we take for granted, such as health care and education. Most of all, it is to give people choices over their own lives and their children's future.

Some 80 per cent of British bilateral aid goes to the poorest countries of the world. All that aid is on grant terms - none of it has to be repaid. The purpose of our aid is to help to put these countries and their people in a position to help themselves. We help their economies and we help the poorer people direct.

And it works. I have seen for myself water being piped into villages in Nepal. Water schemes where, for an expenditure of just pounds 20 per person, villagers who previously had to trudge across the hills for hours in search of water can now turn on a tap in their village. In poor countries the rate of infant mortality has nearly halved over the past 25 years. Life expectancy has increased. Literacy rates have risen. British aid has been part of this.

And we help the vital process of establishing democratic systems and market economies in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. Last year nearly pounds 150m of our money was spent through non- governmental organisations (NGOs). We have increased tenfold in the last decade our help to the NGOs through the Joint Funding Scheme.

The aid programme also helps to alleviate immediate suffering; 12 per cent goes on humanitarian aid to countries such as Bosnia - money that is spent on food to keep people alive in the terrible, tragic enclaves of Srebrenica and Gorazde. In Somalia we give food for those struggling to rebuild their economy after years of bitter civil war.

But let us not shy away from the fact that aid is part of a relationship; part of bilateral relations between countries; part of Britain's relationship with the world; part of international trading and financial systems. The problems faced by the developing world are not problems for them over there as opposed to us over here. The problems confront us all. Political stability, greater prosperity, the reform of the international trading system, and the improvement of the environment in which our children will be brought up - these are all issues that affect us equally. Aid is a part of them. And that is why it has so many facets.

Our priority objectives are straightforward. To promote economic reforms and sustainable growth, to promote good government, poverty reduction, human development, to improve the status of women, and to tackle environmental problems.

These objectives are all in the long-term interests of Britain. We need a more stable, prosperous, open world economy. Many of the most effective ways of helping achieve these objectives also help Britain in a more immediate way. Our membership of organisations such as the World Bank gives British firms the right to bid for their contracts. The contracts we win are, in fact, worth more than the money we put in. And it is right for us to use the expertise and skills of consultants and companies, along with volunteer agencies, to help run our projects and programmes.

Much of the criticism I read and hear has been directed at the aid and trade provision (ATP). Anyone would think that this was the aid programme. In fact, in 1992/93 it accounted for less than 5 per cent of the aid programme - a little in excess of pounds 90m of a total of more than pounds 1.9bn. By comparison, in the same year we spent pounds 290m on humanitarian assistance. Since the aid and trade scheme was invented - by a Labour government - 272 projects have been approved. They cost pounds 1.4bn of ATP and have brought export business of pounds 3.9bn.

You have all seen the allegations that we are distorting our aid programme to secure arms contracts. Let me be clear. We do not - and, while I am the minister responsible, will not - link our aid to the sale of arms.

We have the sixth-largest aid programme in the world. We give a higher proportion of our aid to the poorest countries than other major donors. Our record on humanitarian aid is second to none. The professionalism and impact of our work in health and population, in education, in slum improvement, in forests - I could go on - are widely admired.

The Development Assistance Committee - the club of donors which judges its members - has praised the effectiveness of the way the programme is run. We are leaders in pressing for solutions to the debt problems of the poorest countries. We press for better government, for respecting human rights, for sustainable economic policies. These are the issues to which we do link our aid.

The British aid programme involves taxpayers' money. It should be widely debated. But let the criticisms be based on fact, not on mischievous and half-baked lies and distortions. The Overseas Development Administration is not in the arms business. We are in the business of helping people to help themselves to grow and develop sustainably.

Baroness Chalker is Minister for Overseas Development.

Conor Cruise O'Brien will return next week.

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