Martin Horwood writes … Much more than a number

School visit re FGM

Baroness Lindsay Northover, Baroness Jenny Randerson and Lynne Featherstone MP at a school visit to talk about FGM

As the only UK party with internationalism at our heart, Lib Dems should be very proud of being part of the first government to spend 0.7% of national income on helping the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, a target set by the international community forty years ago and one that many politicians over the years have disregarded as unobtainable.

Irate Tory rightwingers often criticise it as a number plucked out of the air.  It’s not true.  0.72% was proposed to the UN in 1968 by the Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen, who shortly afterwards won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his pioneering work in macroeconomic modelling. It was later refined to 0.70%.

But rows about how much the UK government should be spending on international aid can obscure the reality of what the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) is doing on the ground in developing countries.  We can easily forget that this is so much more than simply patting ourselves on the back for being the first developed country to reach a particular percentage target.

Take the work of Lynne Featherstone and Lindsay Northover, our former and current Lib Dem ministers in DFID, to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). According to the World Health Organisation there are as many as 125 million women alive today who have been cut, and who are living with the physical and psychological scars of this horrific tradition. Despite the enormous scale of this problem, FGM received little attention from government and was little known to most people outside of specific charities working on the issue. First Lynne, and now Lindsay, have been incredibly successful in forcing this up the political agenda, not just domestically but internationally.  So successful that Tory ministers now rush to publicly support the campaign – witness David Cameron’s welcome appearance at the Girls Summit last summer.

Labour rather grudgingly welcome this high-profile focus while complaining at how few prosecutions have taken place in the UK.  Quite apart from forgetting their own record in government, this rather misses the point.  Julia Lalla-Maharajh, of the fantastically successful African anti-cutting campaign the Orchid Project, has engaged with DFID and the Home Office, showing them that ultimately anti-FGM campaigns succeed by changing not just the hearts and minds of women and girls, but the hearts and minds of entire traditional communities. This approach takes long-term commitment, but the end result is invaluable.

Today is International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.  It will be promoted on Twitter, in Newspapers, even on TV news. It is undoubtedly the Liberal Democrats in government who have helped to put this on the agenda and bring it to worldwide attention and made possible  DFID’s £35 million FGM programme with the potential to prevent millions of girls being subject to this brutal crime in the future.

Campaigns like this one are why our country’s international aid budget is so important, and why DFID has such a fantastic reputation worldwide. 0.7% is so much more than a number.  It represents lives saved, abuse stopped, diseases prevented, and that’s why our party should be so proud of it and defend it against who choose not to understand.


* Martin Horwood was LibDem MP for Cheltenham 2005-15 and international affairs spokesperson for the parliamentary party. He is currently chairing the party’s national policy working group on Britain’s Place in the World but is writing in a personal capacity.

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  • Eddie Sammon 6th Feb '15 - 3:07pm

    I want to see some hard headed action on preventing FGM, including prosecuting parents, but I do feel that issues with a human enemy need to be spoken about differently than one with mainly an illness as an enemy, such as cancer or mental health campaigns.

    We need to be very careful about facts when dealing with human enemies and prosecutions.

  • David Cooper 6th Feb '15 - 6:01pm

    @Lib Dems should be very proud of being part of the first government to spend 0.7% of national income on helping the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world,

    We can only be proud if the money is effectively spent and really does help the poorest. There is strong evidence that it is badly spent, and ends up in the pockets of the very rich. A recent reports of the Public Accounts Committee showed that millions had gone to one of the richest individuals in Nigeria (Guardian, 29 Jan). Giving away millions of taxpayers money to criminals should be a matter of deep shame, not a matter for witless celebration.

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