After just seven years in Parliament, representing the spa town of Bath, Christopher Patten has risen rapidly through the ministerial ranks, first in the Northern Ireland office, then at education and science, and was appointed Minister for Overseas Development in Mrs 'Thatcher's latest reshuffle. Regarded as a "wet" in Tory terms, 42 year old Mr Patten regards his new post as "the best anyone could ask to have". Relaxed and casual, this old boy of St Benedict's, Ealing, and Balliol, Oxford, talked to Peter Stanford about his plans and objectives in directing Britain's aid and development efforts.
The British aid budget has fallen from 1.15 per cent of total public expenditure in 1979 to 0.83 per cent today in real-terms. Do you intend to reverse this trend and bring the UK into line with the one per cent of GNP suggested by the United Nations?
OUR aid budget was squeezed along with a number of other public expenditure programmes from 1979 to 1982/3 as we were trying to drive inflation out and put the economy on a sounder footing. Since 1982/3 we have turned the aid programme round and it is now much larger than it was then. We got an increase this year of about £57 million over 1985/6 which is a real terms increase. We've got a further increase of £100 million next year and £140 million on the year after that so we have restored real growth in the aid programme.
I very much hope that by further improving the quality and effectiveness of our aid programme we can strengthen the case for the aid budget growing as our economy strengthens. I certainly think that many more people today than was the case 10 years ago believe that aid is an important and explicit expression of our international obligations rather than an optional extra.
It often appears that, despite the figures you have quoted so impressively, aid is a low priority for this government. Is that a false impression?
What has struck me periodically when 1 have been attending meetings on aid, is how infrequently people actually know what we are doing. They have a generalised view that it can't be enough and in many respects that will sometimes be right. But I don't think that many people know the precise size of our aid budget. We are spending in gross terms about £1.3 billion. We have the sixth largest budget in the world.
So I think that a lot of the criticism, while extremely well meant, isn't always as well informed as I would like. But I do recognise the pressures for doing more, and t do hope during the years or months during which I have this post, which I think is one of the best anyone could ask to have, that I will be able to build more support for sustainable development in our aid budget as well as for sustainable development in developing countries.
The Vatican is preparing a document on the debt crisis in which it is thought it will call for a moratorium on debt repayments. What do you think of that position and how will you approach the debt problem as a minister?
As I think you will appreciate dealing with the world debt problem is not, as it were, solely a responsibility of this office, A lot of other people have an interest in it as well. I don't think that there is a simple or all-embracing answer to the world debt problem. think that the case-by-case approach which is being developed at the moment with the help of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and now the US Treasury Secretary is the right one, involving where necessary rescheduling debt and new lending for adjustment programmes in the economies concerned so that they don't get into the same difficulties in the future,
What is at the end of the day vital is to strengthen the international institutions that are dealing with the debt problem rather than just throwing up one's hands in despair at the scale of it, or thinking that there are simple Napoleonic solutions which I don't think there are.
Its a terribly complex question and in some ways the succe.ssitil management of our own developed economies is the best contribution that we can make to dealing with the problem — for example helping to get interest rates down, helping to sustain noninflationary growth in Europe are ways of helping poor countries in Africa.
A recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report put population control at the top of a list of priorities for Africa. As both a Catholic and a minister do you feel that population growth is indeed at the root of Africa's problems and will you act on the report's recommendations?
I'm speaking on November 5 at a conference that Cardinal Hume is opening on helping poor children around the world and I thought that I'd say a little more about my thinking on population policy on that occasion. I don't believe that FAO put as much emphasis on population policy as you suggest, but certainly there are other factors that are enormously important in Africa's problems.
Pm becoming a bit obsessed at the moment with the
paradox of food surpluses in Europe and North America on one side and food deficits and famine in Africa on the other. We have set as our priority during our presidency of the Development Council of the EEC reform of the food aid regulations so that we can uncouple if possible Europe's food aid from the Common Agricultural Policy. This is with the view not only to breaking down the bureaucracy so that Europe's food aid for disaster situations is More flexible and more immediate, but also to ensure that we don't end up dumping Europe's surpluses on African countries but in the process undermine their own ability or their own inclination to establish viable agricultural industries themselves. Our principal aim is thus to help African countries to feed themselves.
There are two particular aspects of population policy that clearly any rational group of people concerned about sustainable development has to consider. The first is just the sheer business of collecting statistics on population so that you know what is happening. The second is the undoubted relationship between the health of mothers with young children and the spacing of births.
What is your position on the imposition of economic measures/sanctions against South Africa, and, in the event of any such sanctions, would you provide extra assistance for the so-called front line states currently so heavily dependent on South Africa for their economic well-being?
We find apartheid a repugnant and morally bankrupt form of government and wish to see it changed. I think it is more likely to be changed without rather than with violence and I won't want to see South Africa and neighbouring states devastated economically or in other ways, so I hope we can see established dialogue in the region.
Do you think aid should be used to support subsistence agriculture, or else to force people off their lands and into the position of wage slaves?
THIS is a question about the social and environmental impact of development. Any aid programme is in a sense interference. One wants to make that interference as benign and as sustainable as possible. 1 am particularly concerned about the environmental impact of aid. 1 take your point about the social impact and to .a considerable extent I think that the EEC, in its statement about the relationship between aid and human dignity last July, took account of that as well.