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Tackling Poverty in China and South East Asia: Martin Dinham (2000-02-14)

Martin Dinham is a civil servant working for the government's (newest) Department for International Development (DFID). He heads the Asia Pacific Division and regularly accompanies Labour's Minister for the Department Claire Short on trips abroad to assess where and how funds are supplied. He not only talked on the Government's aid policies and how the aid is received and structured in other countries, but also talked on how to get into related careers in the Civil Service.

He summarised the policies behind giving as partly ethical, and partly pragmatic. It sits uneasily on the developed world consciences to see developing countries struggling, and they naturally wish to divert some of their own resources to help. There is also the point that stable, economically prosperous countries are less likely to start wars.

In the globalised climate of today, which Martin described as "neither good nor bad" developed countries need to co-ordinate their aid policies. Those aid policies come with decidedly fewer strings attached than they did even five years ago. UK aid is no longer conditional on the purchase of goods or the granting of contracts. It was interesting to hear Martin describe how much development policy had changed under Labour. Under the last government, development was part of the Foreign Office's duties. It has now been established as an independent Department and although Martin maintained an absolutely neutral tone, it was clear that the Labour approach was rather in keeping with the liberal nature of the Department's activities. The targets for the Department are ambitious: reduce poverty (defined as living on less than $1 a day) by half by 2015, together with similar targets for the reduction of maternal mortality. Education to primary school level and environmental issues are also high on the agenda.

Martin visited China with Claire Short in November. According to DFID policies, aid is targeted in certain areas in joint projects, co-ordinated according to the wishes of the two Governments. Aid is not to be imposed in a patronising way - it is up to the developing countries to put forward proposals for how the money is to be spent, and those that the DFID approves, it supports. DFID money is being donated in Yunnan, Sichuan, Liaoning and Gansu provinces. Some criticise the inclusion of China as a donee country, citing it's membership of the UN Security Council and its huge foreign exchange reserves. Martin pointed out that the superpower of tomorrow still has 230 million people below the poverty line and that the aspiring superpower of tomorrow has huge social problems. Two of the projects into which UK aid is being targeted are an AIDS awareness scheme in Yunnan, and a pilot scheme (costing 15 million) for the restructuring of failing enterprises and the rehabilitation of laid-off workers. The new generation of Chinese cadres has a considerably different attitude towards aid than their predecessors. Some are willing to admit areas of weakness (even admitting the existence of AIDS in China was taboo previously), and Finance Minister Jin praised the British approach to privatisation and expressed a willingness to learn from it.

As for human rights issues, Martin was a member of the co-operation school which prevails amongst UK political and business circles. He said denying economic rights is possibly the greatest infringement of human rights, and the Chinese government at least has a good record on tackling poverty issues. But the DFID gives no cash to Burma.

A very interesting talk, well attended with lots of questions!

summary by Kate Mulrenan