Rory Stewart, the former Secretary of State for International Development, told the audience at a Christian Aid event last night that Britain retains a “moral obligation” to help people who are “much, much poorer” than those in the UK and declared: “I am not a charity starts at home person”.
Mr Stewart, who was speaking in front of hundreds of people at a church in central London, praised the work of Christian Aid, the UK-based international NGO which hosted the event and which is this year marking its 75th year. He said:
“If you don’t support Christian Aid, you should support Christian Aid. It is a very, very good organisation. It’s a very good organisation because it is good at doing development projects in other people’s countries. But it is also a good organisation because it keeps a very good grassroots connection to British citizens, and people here in Britain.”
Mr Stewart took questions from the veteran journalist Edward Stourton at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, and from members of the packed audience. Asked about the Government’s approach to the Department for International Development (DFID), Mr Stewart said:
“I think there is a decent way of asking testing questions about international aid and then there is a bad way of doing it…We should all begin in this room with the fundamental observation that we have a profound moral obligation towards people who are much, much poorer than Britain is. And we ought to be working morning, noon and night to think about how we can engage with those people and transform their lives. So I am not a charity begins at home person.” He added: “I don’t like the Conservative tradition that questions whether we should be helping people in other countries.”
On recent speculation that DFID would be folded into the Foreign Office, Mr Stewart said: “I think the problem with that is that if I was looking for one institution to take over the other, I would probably want DFID to take over the Foreign Office rather than the Foreign Office to take over DFID. The reason for that is…DFID has the skills the Foreign Office doesn’t.”
He went on: “If you start spending that money on bullets rather than babies you’ve missed the point of what that money is there to do…Don’t call it international development if you’re spending it on soldiers. The point about international development is to have funds available which are genuinely designed to try to engage with issues of poverty, and for my money, environment, climate change and education, health…That’s the space we’re talking about, not the space of every other idea that you can come up with when you want to talk about doing things in other people’s countries.”
On climate, Mr Stewart, who is standing as an independent candidate to be mayor of London, said Britain “must take the global lead” and warned against “lack of political will, lack of energy, lack of imagination, lack of dedication.” He added that this was a “litmus test” for the Government.
And on Syria, he said: “This has been the most catastrophic failure of international statecraft of every sort. We have been humiliated by Syria, out manoeuvred by Russia. The cost to the Syrian people has been beyond imagining. The naivety that we displayed repeatedly, the promises we made to communities that we were not able to keep, our inability to be able to actually understand and be honest about the Islamist presence and the relationship between them and the Syrian army, the miscalculations and the betrayal of the Kurdish population around north-east Syria…is just horrifying. And I think we need to be much, much more honest as a country about the fact that from the beginning of this we talked a much bigger game than we should ever have talked. We never had the resources, we never had the people, we never really had the money, we never really had the knowledge, we barely had the people on the ground.”
Also speaking at the event, Christian Aid’s chief executive Amanda Khozi Mukwashi said: “As Christian Aid, having been working in this area of relief and development for the last 75 years…we are connected both here in the UK, but also in the communities that we work in. And even when it is really difficult, we have stayed the course. We have stayed the course in South Sudan, Afghanistan, in DRC, in the Middle East. And sometimes, our staff, we fear for their lives as they work in such difficult situations. We know that even where there is shrinking civil society space and our ability to actually function and deliver in humanitarian situations is threatened, we still choose every time, every day, to be on the side of the downtrodden. And that is who Christian Aid is.”
The high-profile event was live-streamed on Mr Stewart’s Twitter feed, which has 227,000 followers. It will be broadcast as a podcast by the Church Times towards the end of this week.
Main image copyright: Christian Aid/Elizabeth Dalziel