Webchat with Douglas Alexender
Douglas Alexander, secretary of state for international development and Labour election coordinator, was our guest for a live webchat on 2 March 2010. This an edited transcript of the chat.
The minister joined us during Fairtrade Fortnight, and discussed fairtrade, overseas development, climate change, Gordon Brown's personality, the general election and more.
DouglasAlexander: It's Douglas here - looking forward to the conversation this afternoon.
mrsbaldwin: Fairtrade raisins from Afghanistan! That's great! I hadn't heard about this until I read it on here. I won't ask a 'proper' question as I've previously done some work for DFID so it wouldn't be right - but I would like to know where to get the raisins so I can buy a big bag?
DouglasAlexander: I saw the raisins for the first time last week. They are not available in the UK yet, but they told me they should be available in the months ahead. I would check with the Fairtrade Foundation for the latest news.
oricella: Do you think Fair Trade principles applies to services, as well as to goods? For example, is it ethical for international water companies to try to make profits from accessing water supply markets in the South? Is privatisation really a good way to reach the MDGs?
DouglasAlexander: We have a policy of opposing forced privatisation - but some developing country governments are keen to get private investment in to their infrastructure. It should be their choice.
manfrom: Fairtrade is all well and good, but surely the fairest way to help farmers in the developing world would be to abolish the Common Agricultural Policy subsidy system?
Instead of faffing around with the next long-term CAP budget in 2014, why not just aboish all the CAP bureaucracy and provide an instant and massive boost to agriculture in the devoping world? The developing world deserves a level playing field, as I'm sure you'll agree.
On a more serious note, do you get annoyed at being called "Wee Dougie"?
DouglasAlexander: You're right, reform of the CAP would make a real difference to farmers in the developing world. The UK continues to press actively for radical reform of the CAP. Removing the barriers CAP imposes on farmers in developing countries, as well as our own farmers, must be a priority.
But this reform needs to be agreed by 27 member states of the EU; it's not something that's going to happen overnight.
So I don't think it's an either/or situation; we will continue to push for long-term change to the CAP but we will also give active support to measures that are making a proven difference; already Fairtrade is helping more than 7.5m people across the developing world.
On your serious point, isn't there a phrase about sticks and stones - sure, sometimes people try and patronise you, but in politics you just need to get on with it… and grow a thicker skin!
MmeLindt: Why is acceptable that basic products like milk or butter cost the same or even less than 10 years ago. We need to accept that decent, good quality produce is worth spending more money on.
If we pay our farmers fair, market value for their products then it also makes imports from Fairtrade countries viable.
DouglasAlexander: I completely agree that every producer, be they UK or from a developing country should be paid a fair price for their product, and Fairtrade labelling assures us that this is happening for farmers in developing countries.
But I don't think it's a given that decent, good quality produce has to cost more. It is important that shoppers in the UK can access affordable food and increases on ordinary items such as milk affect people on lower incomes in the UK the most.
Carriemumsnet: I recently went to Malawi with Oxfam to highlight the problem of maternal mortality and was v impressed by the work DFID have done and the support they are still giving there (please continue!).
Mumsnetters are obviously committed to supporting women in the third world (and in particular working to reduce maternal and infant mortality) but I was dismayed to see a recent Metro poll where people thought we should be reducing overseas aid. How do we persuade the British public that giving the right sort of aid to the Third World is in our long term interest as well as being the right thing to do?
DouglasAlexander: We have a huge job of work to do on infant and maternal mortality. I visited Sierra Leone recently where the most dangerous day of a young woman's life is the day she gives birth. It is just wrong that one in seven women still die in childbirth.
It requires political leadership in these countries but it also requires continued financial support - to pay for clinics, nurses and birth assistants. That is why it is so vital we keep our promises to the poor - and to do that we need the continued support of people like you.
choosyfloosy: What's your opinion on sugar farming? Should sugar beet farming be encouraged in developed countries like this one, given that it must have an impact on demand for sugar cane from developing countries?
DouglasAlexander: My colleagues inform me there is actually excess global demand for sugar at the moment. This means many countries in Africa, Caribbean and the Pacific (we give them the catchy acronym ACP) can get a high price for their sugar on world markets, despite the production of sugar beet in developed markets.
We're doing a lot to help developing countries access the sugar market, such as arguing for the Everything But Arms deal, which now gives unlimited access to EU sugar markets for producers in the Least Developed Countries; and supporting the new Economic Partnership Agreements to increase market access for the ACP countries.
We've also pressed very hard for development assistance to be provided to ACP producers to help their sugar sector become more competitive. Over 2006-13 EUR 1.28 billion will be provided to 19 ACP countries. No good talking about good intentions, when we can judge you by what you have actually done.
Maiakins: The first thing I would like to say is that the Department for International Development has done a fantastic job over the last 10+ years. It is one of the things that Labour can say it has really achieved on and you can tell that Gordon Brown is really committed to international development.
I find it really confusing to know how to do the right thing when I'm choosing my shopping - should I go for something with few food miles that has been produced locally and is seasonal? Or should I support fairtrade, which may have been flown over from many miles away?
So, my question is: if you were faced with a choice of a food item that was fairtrade (but grown far away) or the same food item that was locally produced, which would it be? I know it is not always as simple as this, but which would you choose?
DouglasAlexander: Thanks for the praise for DFID, much appreciated. And it's a good point on local vs fairtrade, I know that this can be a bit of a vexed question. The short answer is: buy both!
Obviously for some staple products, there's an easy answer – things like tea, coffee and cocoa aren't produced 'locally' in the UK. But for other goods, research has shown that shopping 'local' is not necessarily better for the planet. Driving six and a half miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK.
Research from Cranfield University shows that the emissions produced by growing flowers in Kenya and flying them to the UK can be less than a fifth of those grown in heated and lighted greenhouses in Holland. An air-freight ban would do little to solve climate change – less than one tenth of 1% of UK greenhouse gas emissions come from air-freighting fruit and vegetables to the UK from Africa.
In terms of reducing poverty, over 1 million livelihoods in Africa are supported by UK consumption of imported fresh fruit and vegetables. So what do I do? Well, a bit of both – I do buy fairtrade but I also buy from the Farmers' Market in Gilmour Square in Paisley.
Maiakins: Thanks for your answer - I didn't know that about carbon emissions and the Cranfield research. Hmmm, maybe there needs to be a sticker on the packaging saying how carbon friendly it is!
Of all the places you have been to in your role as secretary of state for international development, which is your favourite? And when you get back from being overseas, do your children run straight for your suitcase to see what souvenir you''ve brought back for them? If so, what was the best gift you got for them?
DouglasAlexander: I have a soft spot for Kenya; I worked there as student and then went back with my wife for our honeymoon.
As for presents, my last trip in my previous job, as transport secretary, was to China, and I came back with a bag full of stickers and a Spiderman torch, which made me quite popular. My first trip as development secretary, however, was to Darfur. I found myself at the airport in Nairobi on the way back at 2am wondering what on earth to get them; they were less than impressed with the wooden animals I came back with.
Maiakins: Hahaha, yes, I imagine that Spiderman torches would beat wooden animals!
Agree with policywonk - that is very worrying about the Conservative suggestions of collapsing DFID into the Foreign Office.
I wonder what you think will happen over the next 20-30 years in terms of international development? Will the traditional donors like US, Europe, Japan etc be overtaken by other new world players?
Hasn't China been very active behind the scenes in donating aid and creating goodwill in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean? I've heard that there are plans for a 'Bank of the South' to compete against the IMF/World Bank. I know aid has always been politicised, but I wonder how you think it might change globally in the long-term?
PreachyPeachyRantsALot: I was on the local Fairtrade committee for our school and whilst the children were very interested, it seems very few parents took it seriously and getting them to actually look for the logo and make fairtrade choices was nigh on impossible. Is fairtrade perhaps (as with recycling to an extent) soemthing that will take off as the children being educated now grow?
DouglasAlexander: PreachyPreachyRantsALot (great name by the way!), I visit schools up and down the country in this job and I find it really heartening that children are so aware of these sort of issues. I think children have a good sense of what's 'fair' and 'unfair' and this gives them quite a clear perspective on Fairtrade.
In fact the Fairtrade Foundation has been really successful in schools; there are 4,000 schools registered with them. I think the next generation is very aware we're living in a world which is smaller and more interconnected than ever, and so yes, I hope they will use this knowledge to make fairtrade choices.
swissarmycheese: Getting rid of CAP will do more than any amount of do-gooding or well-wishing to improve standards in the developing world. Tony Blair gave up our rebate to the EU in order to reform the CAP, but the French stopped the process and in the end we gave it up for nothing. Why did Labour get it so wrong?
DouglasAlexander: I was his Europe minister at the time and we did secure a review of the whole EU budget. I do think it's fair to say we've been the most long-standing and committed advocates of the full-scale reform of the CAP. Indeed, I even went to Paris to make the case in front of a pretty sceptical audience and I can assure you we continue to make that case, as it's the right thing to do.
Swissarmycheese: This isn't a second question - just a clarification of my first point after your answer to manfrom. Of course reforming CAP requires 27 nations to agree. The point is we had leverage. We gave up our EU rebate for it!
Why didn't you use that leverage to demand reform instead of just wishing it would happen? Why didn't you ask for reform first before handing back the rebate? No good talking about good intentions, when we can judge you by what you have actually done.
Bramshott: After watching a film on BBC4 about the children of Zimbabwe last night, can you shed any light on what our government are doing / can hope to do in the mess that is Zimbabwe at the moment?
DouglasAlexander: First I'd assure you that we ARE providing support to people of Zimbabwe - through the UN or aid agencies. None of our funding goes through the government of Zimbabwe. Without help from the UK and other donors the situation would be a lot worse.
We are providing GBP60 million this year to help meet essential food, health and education needs.
I'll give you some specifics to show what this means - without international support, including support from the UK, the health system in Zimbabwe would have collapsed completely. We have supplied vital medicines to more than a thousand local health clinics and hospitals, provided support to keep doctors and nurses working and provided long term support to people living with HIV and AIDS.
Since 2006, we have helped support over 200,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable children by paying their school fees; this year we expect to expand this to reach around 600, 000 children. And we will be supporting the provision of textbooks to every pupil in 5300 primary schools.
But of course, ultimately, we want to see the kind of reform and change in Zimbabwe, which means the country can meet its own needs.
Nearlyfifty: I have been trying to get my 18-year-old daughter interested in world politics and trying to get her to think about food re the planet.
Leona Lewis achieved my aim in one sentence when she said she would give up meat one day a week. What are you doing to capture the imaginations of the 18 year olds about to vote for the first time?
DouglasAlexander: Great question. I have now reached a stage in my life where I am getting invited to more fiftieth birthdays than twenty-firsts.
On policy answer - on DfID we have set up a youth volunteering scheme called Platform2 to let people of your daughter's age work for ten weeks in a developing country.
On politics - I would say we are going to keep working for a legally binding global deal on carbon. I was in Copenhagen with Ed Miliband as we tried to get the deal then, but if we are going to make the kind of changes that we need to make in the future we need the support of people like your daughter.
nearlyfifty: Thanks for the answer - and she's off to Uganda and Kenya in June (having raised the funds herself to do World Challenge). I hope she will come back determined to create a World Fair for All. I will take a look at Platform 2 and get her to sign up.
BridesheadRegardless: Do you view the labelling of food from Isreal/West Bank as a matter of fair trade? and if so, do you feel clearer labelling is necessary so that people can make an ethical choice?
DouglasAlexander: Labelling helps people make informed choices. Just this Saturday I met an olive grower from the West Bank who was in Scotland as part of Fairtrade Fortnight to promote the olive oil that's now available here in the UK.
He told me the Fairtrade label was making a real difference to the co-operative of which he was part.
Ottavia: I've heard that you've no money for the election campaign - is this true and how you going to cope against the Ashcroft millions? Also are you surprised that Bullygate hasn't seemed to worry anyone - saw in Sunday Times poll that the lead is down to two points!?
There hasn't been much discussion on Mumsnet about it either, why is that do you think? Do we just all know that Gordon is grumpy and bad tempered, so it's all in the price as it were?
Thanks for coming on (agree that Labour's record on international development is one of the things feel they can feel proudest about).
DouglasAlexander: Sure the Conservatives have money. Lots of money. Yet I have a sense that it will be people and not posters that will win this election.
They spent almost £500,000 on posters in January, which I think shows they're trying to have a broadcast campaign in a networked age. Politics at its best should be a convesration, and that is what we are trying to have in this campaign, whether on mumsnet, at the school gte, or on the doorstep.
On the stories about Gordon. Listen, these headlines come and go. My sense is that people are more interested in the bigger issues like jobs, childcare, and the NHS than the swirl of rumours and unsourced stories about Westminster, and that explains the reaction of recent days.
ottavia: Are you saying that the bullying/ ranting stories are all fabrication then? Surely not? Not even a hint of truth?
DouglasAlexander: I've worked with Gordon for 20 years I've never seen him hit or punch anyone - can't put it more plainly than that.
Yellowbrickroad: Don't you think the public perception of Gordon is vital at this stage?
DouglasAlexander: Sure the election will be in part about leadership. The debates will be a focus of this scrutiny. My sense is that the campaign will also be about what kind of country we want to live in in the years ahead. More of a choice, and less of a referendum.
I'd be interested in what you think we should be talking about? You can let me know now or I'm on twitter at @DouglasGE2010.
Policywonk: I agree with all the comments about DFID; it's one of the best things Labour has done since 1997. What changes do you think DFID would see under Andrew Mitchell, if the Conservatives win the election?
DouglasAlexander: It's an important question about what would happen to development if the Tories were to win the election. Since 1997 we've trebled the aid budget and in the preceding 18 years they halved it.
Just last summer, John Major and Douglas Hurd wrote an article saying DFID should be folded back into the foreign office. A survey this weekend showed being DFID secretary of state was the least attractive job in government for selected Tory candidates. So I would worry for both the funding of development and how that money would be used in developing countries. The stakes are high.
policywonk: 'Just last summer John Major and Douglas Hurd wrote an article saying DFID should be folded back into the foreign office. A survey this weekend showed being DFID secretary of state was the least attractive job in govn for selected Tory candidates.' I Did Not Know either of these things. Worrying.
Ahundredtimes: Do you think this election is going to become about personality rather than policy?And does that worry you and is this a new development in politics or as old as the hills?
DouglasAlexander: I sense that the TV debates by the leaders means that they will be front and centre in the campaign in a way that hasn't been the case in the past. That being said, to quote Tony Benn (not something I do every day, incidentally) politics should be about policies - they are what will affect the life chances of the kids in my community most.
ahundredtimes : Thank you for answering. Think you're right - and that's a v good way of looking at it. I agree. And I also like those squares of chocolate that pass as biscuits.
onebatmother: I must just ask another, election-based question. "A future fair for all." What were you thinking? Sounds like 1960s Hollywood doing King Arthur. Or else an atomic-age lifestyle exhibition.
DouglasAlexander: OWe looked at the research and thought hard about a line that communicated our sense that the election will not simply be about change (as the Conservatives keep telling us) but at a deeper level about what kind of future we want.
"A future fair for all" proved to be more interesting and conversational than "A fair future for all" and the grammar, or lack of it, has proved to be a talking point. And as for "Vote for change", what were they thinking?
policywonk: Apparently, they were thinking 'Let's steal the tag line from a popular constitutional reform campaign'.
longfingernails: Labour are cutting hospitals. Why? See here where Liam Byrne tries to fob this off as expensive buildings. Why are you not pledging to protect NHS funding, while the Tories are? Talking about protecting "frontline" services might be enough obfuscation for many, but it won't wash here. What exactly is the point of Labour, if it is not the party of the NHS?
DouglasAlexander: Labour is committed to protecting frontline services, and given the number of unfunded spending commitments that have been made by the Conservatives, I am not sure many people will believe their claims anyway. It is not by chance, but by conscious decision, that we have seen record investment in the NHS in recent years.
JenniferTurkington: I support the others here who congratulate you and your party for your record on international development. I'm really interested in climate change and wonder if you would indulge me and depart from fair trade for a few moments.
I'm sure many of us were disappointed by the outcome in Copenhagen but I did think that the financial commitments made by rich countries to help poorer countries adapt to and mitigate climate change were among the few positives.
However, I've heard that the UK is not committing any new financing to meet these targets but instead is just repackaging old money that is not new or over and above aid spending. Isn't this just demonstrating to rapidly developing countries that we are not serious about climate change and so neither should they be? Good luck with the election campaign.
DouglasAlexander: Happy to talk about climate change; I'm always keen to make it clear that tackling climate change and fighting poverty are inextricably interlinked.
What you've heard isn't quite right - I completely agree that the financial commitments made to help developing countries deal with the devastating effects of climate change need to include new and additional money. The UK fought hard for this before and at Copenhagen. That's why we have committed to make additional funding available as part of our contribution to the USD 100 billion global fund due to begin in 2013.
Before 2013 we will provide GBP1.5 billion of ODA (that's overseas development assistance) to poor countries to help them bring in the urgent measures they need to protect their people from floods and droughts, reduce emissions and conserve the forests that provide a livelihood to millions.
Jenniferturkington: Many thanks for answering my question. Wouldn't it be great though it the UK could show leadership and say that of our $1.5billion, at least 50% will be new and additional money and that after 2013 we will pledge $10 billion of new and additional money (above ODA) to the global climate fund. This will at least stop us worrying that ODA money is being diverted from development budgets to fight climate change. I know the two things are linked, but in accounting terms you need to make the distinction.
The biscuit question
greeneyeshadow: Feels sure the answer will be a "fairtrade" one but do you have a favourite VARIETY of biscuit?
DouglasAlexander: Terrible admission, and not very patriotic but my favourite are chocolate Leibnitz. (A slab of chocolate pretending to be a biscuit.) Prefer the dark chocolate ones to the milk ones - and of course I hope that they will soon embrace Fairtrade.
DouglasAlexander: Time for me to go. Thanks for the questions. In truth, I approached the session with some trepidation (lots of briefing on biscuits!), but its been good fun. Lets do it again. And Happy Tenth Birthday by the way!