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Health Poverty Action – a cause to get excited about

While I am increasingly positive about the UK Parliament, which is undergoing a Dr Who-like regeneration, I find myself feeling more and more critical of international aid. UK INGOs have become a bureaucratic industry sending out dishonest and disparaging marketing messages about resource-poor countries and the people within them. Hiding behind apparent moral virtuousness, NGOs can duck accountability in a way that politicians seldom can.

After years of depressing encounters with arrogant aid workers who refuse to take accountability seriously, I’ve been plunged into the middle of an organisation that bucks all these trends. A few days ago I had my first Board meeting as a Trustee of Health Poverty Action and had three surprises. The staff made it clear that they refuse to portray people in the Global South as pathetic, saved only by the kindness of Europeans. They resist unnecessary bureaucracy, spending tiny amounts on both fundraising and their UK office. This means that for every £1 (untied to any project) someone donates to them, they can go and raise £20 for projects from governments and grant-makers. That is a fantastic investment. And they have chosen as their key theme for policy reflection this year: accountability!

This is a charity I can get excited about. So much so that I have rashly agree to live on £1 a day for 5 days. I have had some doubts about this in the past. There is something inadequate about this 5 day experience is a way of trying to imagine what it is like being poor. But it isn’t about that, I now realise. For me, it is more of a symbolic reminder to those who may want to support good causes that this is what some people live on. I have hesitated to give money or time to nearly all international NGOs in the recent past, so the relief of finding one that I feel certain about after years of searching is delicious.

If you feel like sponsoring me, you will make me even happier.

How to choose your MP?

This morning I gave a talk to the Sixth Form at Chew Valley School in Somerset. I wanted to encourage them to vote. Many people despair of politicians and believe it is not worth voting because (a) politicians are all the same, (b) they are in it for themselves and (c) voting makes no difference. But after researching Parliament for five years since 2010 I think all three assumptions are nonsense:

·      MPs are all different: The political parties still spend money on completely different things, which dramatically affects, who gains and who loses out in society, but also individual MPs vary hugely. For example, I have found that women MPs spend more time meeting their constituents than men do. Some MPs have had long careers, others have only had political jobs. Most work incredibly hard, a few are lazy and concerned with looking rather than being busy.

·      MPs are not in it for themselves any more or less than any one else. Half the new MPs in 2010 took a pay cut. Increasing numbers often rebel against their party even though it may reduce their chance of getting a job in government. They are very similar to people I have worked with in charities. They want to improve society. Whether they do or not is a matter of opinion but they are well-intentioned. Politicians are different in having thicker skins and more optimism than the rest of us, but morally they are similar to anyone aiming to do public service.

·      Everything is continually changing: This country has completely changed since I was a child and it is partly due to politicians. Some of the change is good, some not. But the point is that if we want to leave it entirely to politicians, then we deny ourselves the possibility of influencing them. Government does get things wrong – politicians get arrogant, especially when they have been in power for a while. Parliament challenges them but it does so much more effectively if we citizens get involved.

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