Air Date: August 24, 1999

Program 9934

Eliminating Poverty

Clare Short, member, British Parliament

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

CLARE SHORT: There’s an old assumption people have that you can either be moral or you act commercially or in your country’s self-interest. I think it’s wrong to think that those two are in conflict. You can do what’s right and look after your country.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, the British plan to eliminate poverty around the world.

SHORT: So what we’re saying as a government is, "why don’t we get the world to do what it said it would do?" Why don’t we just [get] organized? Why don’t we do this? It would be noble, as I say, but it also would be very hard-headedly sensible. Because if we go on with all this poverty it’s going to hurt the next generation of children wherever they live. It doesn’t matter how privileged the country they live in; if the seas get overfished, if the forests are destroyed, you know, if we get global warming and all the rest, it doesn’t matter that you’re living in a wealth country—you’re going to be in trouble.

KRISTIN MC HUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. The Right Honorable Clare Short has been a member of the British Parliament since 1983. She rose quickly through the ranks of the Labor Party and held important posts in the opposition structure during the years of Conservative Party rule. When the Labor Party won the House of Commons in 1997, new Prime Minister Tony Blair quickly made Clare Short part of his cabinet. He did so by creating a new government department, which reflects his campaign promises sustainable development and the elimination of poverty around the world.

SHORT: My title is Secretary of State for International Development. In the previous, under the previous Tory Government we had a department for what we called Overseas Development but it was headed by a minister that came under the Foreign Secretary. It was part of the Foreign Office but it promoted—well, it ran the aid program. We fought the election—we, Labor, the new Labor Government in Britain—on a commitment to more social justice at home and we wanted to stand by the same values internationally. For a chance for everyone to have a job, to get their children educated; that’s the way to have a just world and a safe world for all of us.

So a commitment to the establishment of a Department for International Development headed by a cabinet minister was part of that, same values at home as abroad, no hypocrisy, social justice should run through everything that we do. One in four of the people of the world live in complete hunger and poverty. You know, average life expectancy no more than mid-30s, lots of children dying before they’re five and so on. Lots of women dying when they have babies. We consider that sort of deeply immoral. That’s an unjust world. And all the riches we’ve got in the world, if we got ourselves organized surely we can do better to give them a chance to work and build up their lives.

And we also consider that it’s dangerous in our own interest and position, if we go on with this unstable divided world. Poverty tends to be linked to environmental degradation; very poor people chop down forests for the wood or for the land, even though it’s very poor land to farm, and then have to do it again. Population growth, very fast when people don’t know if their babies will live and don’t have any access to reproductive health care. In the most poor countries in the world now we see more and more war. It’s very difficult to be a good government in a very poor country where there isn’t enough for everyone. Conflict tends to break out.

And we see big refugee movements. We’ve seen the spread of disease in the world that we don’t have drugs for. There are forms of TB in Russia now that we don’t have drugs for. There are forms of malaria that we don’t have proper treatment for. So we’re saying social justice is a duty of all of us as people and all decent governments. That should be for everybody in the world to have a chance to build up their lives. And acting really seriously to reduce these terrible levels of poverty is also in the hard-headed interest of Britain. It will be safer for the next generation of our children. There’ll be more trade in the world; there’ll be more stability in the world. We’ll be better able to stop the environment being degraded.

So that was a big commitment of our new government. And now, of course every government got to then say, "What’s Britain’s commercial interest? What’s Britain’s immediate political interest?" But we also say, "What’s the development interest?" Cause sometimes it takes a little longer than the short-term political consideration. But it’s still a very important part of government policy. And so we wanted it considered alongside the other interests, not submerged and always subjected to "What’s Britain’s short-term interests?" and therefore we never work intelligently for long-term development.

PORTER: That’s a very bold and large agenda, isn’t it?

SHORT: It’s, as I say, it’s very noble. It’s the most noble area of politics that one can work in. But also, the world is globalizing and we do have to set in place stronger international institutions to manage the globalizing world. If we try—if we think we can look after ourselves just in our own countries it will go wrong. If there’s a crisis in East Asia it comes back and hurts jobs in America, it comes back and hurts jobs in the northeast of England. Therefore we need rules for international trade, for the rules of international investment, to make the World Bank’s programs for development work efficiently. It’s in all our interests if you want a safe, stable country at home, to be better at looking at how we have safe and fair international systems. So it’s noble and it’s also very sensible in light of the changing world.

And there’s an old assumption people have that you can either be moral or you act commercially or in your country’s self-interest. I think it’s wrong to think that those two are in conflict. You can do what’s right and look after your country. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

PORTER: Does your agency’s mission—how does it differ from our USAID—Agency for International Development?

SHORT: Well, one is that we—there is this UN target that every country in the world is supposed to spend 0.7%—that’s less than one percent of it’s Gross Domestic Product on development for the very poorest people in the world. We inherited 0.26 percent and we’ve started to raise it. America’s is much lower and is shrinking, so that’s one difference. You’ve got some very good people in USAID but they’ve got a very small budget and it gets smaller all the time.

Secondly, they’re a kind of agency that’s subject I think to State Department. We’re not. We’re a department that is as strong as the Foreign Office or our Trade Department. You know, we come in equally around the cabinet table.

Thirdly, we’re not just aid, we’re also asked to look at "What’s Britain’s position when we’re negotiating a world trade agreement?" What’s Britain’s position when we’re negotiating a new agricultural arrangements for trade in the world? Or, what we’re doing with debt. You know, the big church campaign on debt relief for the very poorest, highly indebted countries. So that Britain doesn’t look only to it’s own interests when we go to international negotiations; we also look at what would be a fair and decent world for all of us. So we’ve also got this responsibility to make Britain have a bigger mind about how we protect our own position within a more equitable—so we take an interest in debt relief, in what the World Bank is doing—I’m the UK Governor of the World Bank. We work closely with our Treasury on that. We look at the international rules of trade, international investment agreements, international environmental agreements, and how they affect developing countries. So it’s also intellectually very interesting.

PORTER: You’ve mentioned and you’ve written so much about this goal of eliminating poverty. It’s another noble goal to use your word there, and we’ve heard about it for so long, I think though. Even our President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty. And I’m wondering what’s different in 1999 about the way we’re attacking poverty, as opposed to the way we may have attacked it decades ago?

SHORT: Well, I think it is interesting, actually, that Professor—that President—Lyndon Johnson did say, "Let’s have a world where I’ll campaign for the elimination of poverty." Cause since then no American president has talked like that. So obviously America used to have bigger aspirations as international leader than seems to have happened since those times. So I think that’s just notable in history. But it was a very honorable aspiration he had and then of course along came the Vietnam War and all that, slightly disrupted his presidency I think.

But the difference now is that all our countries have been through a big series of UN conferences. People will have heard of them—Rio for the environment; Beijing for women, you know so you get worldwide basic standards for women; Copenhagen for social justice; Cairo for reproductive health care, and so on. All our governments went and they agreed, after lots of detailed consideration, to programs for international reform.

And these were repeated by the Development Committee of the OECD, which is, they meet in Paris and it’s the group of the world’s industrialized countries, the richest countries in the world, to be completely achievable. And they are. That we should halve the proportion of people in the world living in absolute poverty within twenty years. That—our governments all voted for this, so I’m not just inventing this. Your government has voted for it.

That this is achievable and affordable, that every single child in the world should be in basic education—just basic education. But we know in the poorest countries now, the single thing you can do that brings the fastest development in the poorest countries is get a generation of children through school, including the girls. In the poorest countries girls tend not to be educated. Educated girls when they grow up they change their country. They get married a bit later, they have less children, their children are much more likely to live, they’re better at getting income, they’re better at getting healthcare and they’re better at getting education for their own children.

So these are, this, your, your government has voted for this as well as ours. Halving the proportion in poverty, every child in basic quality education, basic healthcare—this is just very basic healthcare for everyone in the world. Action on the loss of environmental resources. And what we’re saying is, One, all our governments said this is possible, but they’re not really organizing to get it done. If it is possible it’s the most noble and fabulous thing we could do. Why don’t we all just get organized and do it? And put all the UN agencies to work. Get them all focused on doing this job. Get—let’s make all of our organizations more effective; the World Bank. We’ve got all these institutions all our countries are part of. It’s better reforming governments and not waste money on the corrupt ones, but get some models of success into the world system. And so on.

So what we’re saying as a government is, "why don’t we get the world to do what it said it would do?" Why don’t we just [get] organized? Why don’t we do this? It would be noble, as I say, but it also would be very hard-headedly sensible. Because if we go on with all this poverty it’s going to hurt the next generation of children wherever they live. It doesn’t matter how privileged the country they live in; if the seas get over-fished, if the forests are destroyed, you know, if we get global warming and all the rest, it doesn’t matter that you’re living in a wealth country—you’re going to be in trouble.

So this is our big campaign. So I suppose the difference with Johnson—he was talking about something similar—he got distracted by Vietnam. But this time we’ve got all the governments of the world saying, "This can be done" and they voted for it. The other thing we’ve got is a lot of experience of what works. Now the Cold War is over. We’ve learned. You know. Too much statism is inefficient and oppressive but it’s not good for the economy. Too much absolute free market without any government providing basic healthcare and regulation and stopping corruption, isn’t healthy either. We know what works to produce development, so why don’t we just get on with it? That’s what we’re saying.

PORTER: We’re starting—you mentioned all of those UN summits—and we’re starting the five-year review process we’ve been going through every year. And I know this year we’re beginning to prepare for Copenhagen Plus Five next year. And at a review process meeting earlier this year Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette gave a speech where she noted that since Copenhagen we’ve had 300 million more poor people in the world than we had back then; 33 countries have had their life expectancies decline since then. That’s not very encouraging is it?

SHORT: Well, one, we are getting more population. And this is just—I mean in 1945 there were 2.4 billion people in the world. We’re now just at nearly six billion and the world’s population is quite young. And therefore it’s going to grow. Cause young people haven’t had their children yet. We are going to ten billion people in the world if we do everything wise that we can do, within 20 years. Now that means, just in 50 years the quadrupling of the world’s population. Now there is a limit on the riches of this little planet of ours and its air, its seas, its fish, its land. And the way you stop population growing, kind of very, very fast is not by repressing or hurting anyone; it’s by educating boys and girls, but including girls in it. Giving people access to reproductive healthcare, to make their decisions about when they have their children and you know, how they want to space their children. No oppression. So one of the points you made is world population is growing, but it’s growing in the poorest countries. So if we want to look after our planet and its resources and let people control their future, their lives, the lives of their children, we need to concentrate on development.

The other thing that’s a real problem is AIDS. The growth of AIDS, which is big in Africa and spreading in Asia. And of course it’s causing a lot of harm in Africa but this big population in China and India, and so on; if we don’t do better the numbers of people infected in the world. Again, it’s another thing; you can’t look after the boundaries of your own country. People travel; it spreads about. Now, of all the new AIDS infections in the world half are young people under 25 and half of them are girls. So you know, no one should think, "Oh dear, this is a gay plague" or whatever. Not that it’s right to think that. This is spreading across the world through the heterosexual young community. And it has caused a loss of life expectancy in Africa. And that’s a serious blow.

But even there we’ve got some good news. Uganda, that was very badly infected, partly because it was terribly badly affected by war and soldiers tend to misbehave and bring venereal disease and so on, with them, as they roam across the world, you know, on their own. So Uganda was badly affected earlier but they’ve gone for a big public education campaign, from the President down to every village. And they’ve slowed the spread.

So even there, these are things we have to deal with but there are positive ways forward. And then it’s a question of embracing them, being serious about them, and making sure all the people who need to protect themselves have got the knowledge.

MC HUGH: Coming up, more from Clare Short, the British Secretary of State for International Development.

SHORT: We’ve found, if you go and ask the poor of the world, "What is their urgent priority?" firstly you find some of the hardest working people of the world. They work all the hours that God sends. They know what’s working and not working in their life. You do much better development if you treat them with respect and respect their opinions and their human rights.

MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: Around the world there are governments and international agencies who are partnering with NGOs to carry out services on the ground rather than start up government projects and services from scratch. Are you doing that kind of thing and are you encouraged by the use of NGOs as ways to carry out—to be service providers?

SHORT: Well, NGOs, which I think most people in Britain who give money to the Oxfam’s and that, don’t know what NGOs are. They’re charities, the big, the charities that work for the reduction of poverty in the poorest countries.

PORTER: That’s one of those acronyms that gets used, for Non Governmental Organizations.

SHORT: I know. I’m just always concerned that the sensible public doesn’t talk in this jargon. And it’s very important. I think most of the people in Britain who give money in collections to development charities don’t know what an NGO is. If I’m right, then, you know—if we’re charged to talk to the public we ought to call it what the public calls it.


SHORT: Sorry, that’s just one of my little bugbears. But where were we? I think we have to go beyond, in the poorest countries, thinking "someone will go along with a good heart and a bit of charitable money and have a little school project." Because of course, when their money runs out or they get tired the school project closes down. So now we are much more working with the World Bank, other countries like USAID, and so on, involving the development charities, but saying to the Ministry of Education in Uganda—which has given a commitment to free primary education right through the country for all children—well, up to four in each family they’ve said—it’s a bit hard on the fifth, but that’s another discussion, that we’ll help the Ministry of Education to reform, to become efficient, to be better at training their teachers, to have the capacity in the country to produce books. And in the end to have a tax system that they can raise the money so that they’ll fund their own education system. So you might work with them for ten years plus but when you finish the project you’ve got a free standing education system that’s there for everyone indefinitely. So we’re moving much more that way rather than having lots and lots of little projects funded by lots and lots of different organizations.

But the development organizations we’re saying to, more and more, "can you work with people in the developing country, who know what’s going on, who hold their governments to account, who denounce corruption when it’s there, who say ‘this could be run more efficiently.’" We need a more informed public in developing countries, too. Who, they need to be given the chance to get development, their governments, but then you need the public to make sure the governments do the right thing. Cause in some poor countries there are very corrupt governments and they need to be challenged.

So, we’re seeing a bit of a change in the role of these development charities in Britain. Yes, if it’s an emergency everyone, you know, there’s an earthquake or something, then everyone needs to come in and just do the job. But for the development in the poorest countries, we need to help those institutions to do it for themselves.

PORTER: I know you’re also very interested in the issue of microcredit and microfinance. Can you tell us, our audience, what that is and how it plays a role in meeting the goals of your department.

SHORT: Yeah. Some of the poorest people in the world can’t get any credit at all. The banks, you know, in Bangladesh, or in poor countries in Africa, they don’t go into the rural areas. And they don’t deal with very small amounts of money. And yet we’ve found that loans of very small amounts of money, particularly to women, who are just reliable at paying back and tend to spend the proceeds on their children, can transform people’s lives so that if there’s a little crisis in say the growing of the maize and there’s something wrong with that crop, you can borrow a little, see your family through, plant again. If there’s no credit your family goes into penury, you have to sell your cooking pots and your digging instruments and then one little crisis or somebody getting sick and the whole family is reduced to pauperhood.

The chance to get credit sees people through the bad times or if they’re doing some little enterprise a little credit means that they can grow a few more chickens and sell them and increase the family income or whatever. And we’ve seen the very poorest in the world, just giving access to small credit, paying back, and improving their family condition. And now we’re saying this should be worldwide. The poorest people have no credit, no way of making savings. That mans they’re very vulnerable when things go wrong. Just basic credit systems. And this isn’t even, these aren’t, this isn’t charity—they pay it back. It really gives them the chance to get a hold of their lives and improve their position. So we’re working to get systems right across the world. US—and I think your, your President and his wife and USAID, have been very keen on this too. And it’s really a very exciting new movement. It gives people a chance to stand on their own feet.

PORTER: In your Department, tell me something that you’re particularly proud of. What’s, what’s worked very well for you, in the years that you’ve been in this office?

SHORT: Well, I’ve been there, what, two years and a little bit. I think what I’m most proud of is that we have very able, very committed Department that is really working to get the international system to lift its head up and say, "Come on." None of us can do it alone. Even a country as big as your own, alone, cannot halve the proportion of people in the world living in poverty by 2015. But if we all work together with the World Bank, all the UN agencies, if we all make ourselves more efficient, if well measure what we’re achieving by output, we can do this.

And I mean, there’s also other things we do but I mean if we can get that kind of commitment into the international system, then as I say, as a politician of many years standing, all the boring meetings I’ve been to in my life must have been worthwhile.

PORTER: I’m sure you must do a lot of work with both the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. And now we have Mark Malloch Brown, a Brit going from the World Bank…

SHORT: World Bank, yeah.

PORTER: head the UNDP. Do you have any words of wisdom for him as he makes that transition?

SHORT: Well, it’s very interesting, really. Because we—Britain—didn’t support him. Because we, the European Union had said we would agree on a European candidate and they EU agreed on somebody else. So I think the United States did support him. So there’s an irony. We wish him well. This is a very important agency of the UN. It’s meant to lead the thinking on and coordinate other agencies to get development in the poorest countries. It needs to be more efficient and more effective. We’ll be there, backing him up, cause it’s a real opportunity to do better. But we hope he will do better. It’s very important for lots of people.

PORTER: On our program we do talk a lot about UN agencies and the work of the United Nations and the work of the United Nations. What has the UN done right and what has the UN done wrong in development programming?

SHORT: The UN is fantastically precious. We haven’t got any other institution in the world that represents all of us, all the countries of the world, that can reach everywhere, that’s got that legitimacy everywhere. Kofi Annan is a great Secretary General. And he’s saying, fifty years on-cause it was founded by that great generation after the Second World War, who said, "We’ve got to build something better than the conditions that led the world to world war, the Holocaust, and all the miseries of that," but it needs renew, it needs to be more effective, it needs to be driven by outputs.

This clouds of the old Cold War days when everyone got into two sides and squabbled all the time, we don’t need any of that anymore. So we are great believers in the UN, great believers in this reforming Secretary General, who says, "for a new generation, a new millennium, let’s have a more effective UN." We’re not trying to spend less on it. We’ve said, "If there’s any savings we’ll put them back in the pot." It’s not we’re trying to cut. It doesn’t cost very much. What’s this thing, the UN costs less than the fire brigade in New York, or something. So, you know. So we’re great believers in UN but we don’t think we should sort of see it like a museum that isn’t capable of improvement. We see it as a precious institution that needs to be driven forward and increase its effectiveness. And we want to make alliances kind of across the world to achieve that.

PORTER: And one last area I want to ask you about. Oftentimes international development programs and perhaps more often international investment programs, are criticized for riding roughshod over the human rights of the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this, the service. Are you sensitive to that? And is there a way that we can, that we can avoid that in the future.

SHORT: Yes. I think in the past lots of people have said, "Ah, development! There’s these hopeless poor people and they don’t know what they need. But we’ll come in and do programs for them." They didn’t consult them. Didn’t ask them what their priorities were, didn’t ask them if they wanted a dam there or whether a dam was their first priority. And that used to trample on people’s human rights. Whereas, we’ve found, if you go and ask the poor of the world, "What is their urgent priority?" firstly you find some of the hardest working people of the world. They work all the hours that God sends. They know what’s working and not working in their life. You do much better development if you treat them with respect and respect their opinions and their human rights. So it’s, yeah—Stalin is the worst possible example, when he knew better than the Russian people what was good for the Russian people. But a lot of people who’ve worked in development really—I mean I know that’s a bit of an exaggeration—but have rather treated the poor like that. As though they’re stupid, as though they don’t know what’s in their interest. That’s the wrong approach.

The second thing, everyone should remember about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It quite rightly says we’re all free to express our opinions, to be consulted about politics, to have elections, to get rid of our governments if we don’t like them—but it also says it’s a basic human right to have your children educated; it’s a basic human right to have healthcare; it’s a basic human right to be able to work and get an income. So development is human rights. And no one is really free unless they have all these things. I mean, to be a free human being you need to be able to express your views, to get rid of an oppressive government, but you need to be able to earn a living, to be able to get your children to school, to be able to get some healthcare. So proper development is the realization of human rights. And some of the talk of human rights talks only as though activists in politics need human rights. But every single human being in the world needs all their human rights.

PORTER: That is Clare Short. She’s a long-time member of the British House of Commons; she serves in the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair as the Secretary of State for International Development. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free. Cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Please refer to program No. 9934. To order by credit card you can call us at 319·264·1500.

PORTER: Transcripts are also available on our web site, Our e-mail address is

MC HUGH: B.J. Leiderman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by The Stanley Foundation.

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