This is not the moment to give up on aid, but to believe in it – Tony Blair

Next week will be the first time in years we see former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair taking to the international stage and attending a high level forum with world leaders. The Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea will review the progress made on former commitments to aid effectiveness, and showcase commitments that set a new agenda for development. Certainly one to watch.

Last week, ONE spoke to Tony Blair about his message to leaders as he prepares to attend the forum in Busan.  We also took the opportunity to talk to him about some of the issues we’ve been calling for change on at ONE, and about how his Africa Governance Initiative plays a part in this.

Tony BlairSo, why is he attending the Busan conference on aid effectiveness, and how can it be made a success?

“I think the most important thing is to show people this is a developing debate around an area where, believe it or not, things can change. I mean I happen to think with Africa, I think Africa is a continent on the move.”

Blair believes it vital that we show the progress made in Africa, and give people “a sense of the potential,” as many African countries “have come a long way in the past decade partly as a result of imaginative development policy.” He also points to the momentum that he hopes will be seen at Busan with so many leaders attending, including Hillary Clinton.

He also levelled a challenge at them, sending his message ahead of the conference: “We’re about to enter a whole new decade of really exciting innovation and development in the aid space. And so this is not the moment to give up on it but to believe in it.”

With 10 years of experience of international summits as UK Prime Minister, we asked how, following on from the recent meeting of world leaders in Cannes, the G20 should follow through on their warm words and break the cycle of famine by delivering long-term agricultural solutions , and how we at ONE, with over 400,000 voices, can help hold them to account for their promises.

Blair argues that there are two things we all need to do. The first is to challenge critics and “show people that aid really does work because the concept of aid being basically a waste of money is just not right.” His second challenge is for people in the aid community to show that they are also evolving their policies towards aid and aren’t “just stuck in the past. On the contrary there’s a lot of innovation, a lot of exciting things happening.”

But he also emphasises that a big part of convincing political leaders comes down to activists like us getting behind these issues, and that ONE members should carry on putting pressure on them “to show them that they would have support if they do the right thing.” And this is why our campaign on agriculture and food security is carrying on next year – to get real commitments to ending famine, and for all of the people who do not get enough food each day.

ONE meets Tony Blair

ONE’s next global campaign is being launched in the run up to World AIDS Day (December 1st ). We’re campaigning for the beginning of the end of AIDS by 2015. There is still a way to go but we know great results are possible.  10 years ago, just 100,000 people had access to lifesaving antiretroviral drugs to counter AIDS, and now 6.6 million people are able to take them. “Right, that’s amazing. I think on that, it’s a little bit like with the malaria campaign, you can really say it’s not true it’s all hopeless. Because otherwise what happens is that people get to the point with a lot of these campaigns where they think ‘well you know, they’re always asking me for money and they’re always telling me it’s all very difficult.’ There you’ve got a great story to tell.”

What about aiming to see 15 million people onto antiretroviral drugs, and ending mother to child transmission of the virus, both by 2015? “It can be done if people have the will to do it. And you can see that from what’s been done in the last 10 years.” As Hillary Clinton recently said, we really could be welcoming in an ‘AIDS free generation’.

While much has been achieved in Africa, in part thanks to aid coupled with strong African leadership, 400 million people still live in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa alone. The work isn’t complete. But with government cutbacks, and the Eurozone crisis, we’re hearing more voices saying we should be cutting back on aid too. What’s the former Prime Minister’s take on this, as someone with the rare experience of having felt some of the pressures that face our current government?

This area of policy, uniquely in my experience of politics, is one of which you can literally measure in lives the difference you can make for the better. And, I think when people talk about the aid budget, they might sort of say ‘well I’ve got all these problems at home, do I care if it’s cut or not?’ but I think when you tell them what the money is spent on… you get their support”.

He went on to talk proudly of the UK Department for International Development (DFID)’s work ; “And you know after all DFID, for example, in our case is now a very, very effective development agency, perhaps the most effective of government departments in the world. You know I see round the world projects they do they really make a difference.”

Interestingly, when it comes to development, Blair believes that this is unlike talking to people about other issue areas “in a curious way, for once you get their support in particular more than you do in general.” By focusing on how many lives could be saved, how many communities stabilised, and how, Blair is confident that as a focused movement against extreme poverty we can bring others with us.

After leaving office, Tony Blair could have chosen any number of paths. But by setting up and being Patron of the (now 4-year-old) Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, Blair signalled that development was and remains one of the most important areas to him. But why this route; why Africa?

“When I’m seeing these African leaders struggle with their challenges… often the single most difficult thing for them is to get anything done.”

But, seeing the potential for change, Blair notes that “if they can get say, basic infrastructure done – energy, electricity, roads – if they can put the right framework in place to attract the right type of transparent investment into their country, they can probably make a go of it.“

African leaders often “pull a lever, nothing happens. And so that’s why we focus on this, because what I learnt when I was in government is that aid is not enough. I didn’t learn that aid was a bad thing; I just learned it wasn’t enough. And that, for these countries, in the end they need to govern themselves, but to govern themselves they need to show that normal politics, in the sense of getting things done, can deliver for people.”

While there are lots of challenges ahead, Blair’s message throughout this interview was that when you see just how much has been achieved through effective aid, now is absolutely not the time to cut back, but to believe in it, and do what we can to convince world leaders to keep changing lives, and continue our fight to end extreme poverty.

We’re certainly up for that challenge. Are you?


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