INTERVIEW - UK Conservatives would step up Pakistan aid effort

LONDON Wed Mar 3, 2010 9:05pm IST

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LONDON (Reuters) - A British Conservative government would be committed to raising foreign aid to the U.N. target in 2013 and would aim to step up development efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a senior party official said.

Once a decision is taken to resume large-scale aid to Zimbabwe, a Conservative government would seek to lead international development efforts there by helping to refurbish the country's 7,000 schools, Andrew Mitchell, the opposition party's international development spokesman, told Reuters.

The Labour government, in power since 1997, has sharply raised development spending, making Britain one of the world's leading aid donors. Aid is set to reach 7.8 billion pounds in the new financial year starting next month.

The government aims to raise foreign aid to the U.N. target of 0.7 percent of gross national income by 2013.

The centre-right Conservatives say they would maintain that commitment if they win an election due in the next three months despite calling for urgent action to cut Britain's budget deficit that is set to exceed 12 percent of GDP this year.

International development and health spending are the only areas the Conservatives have pledged to protect.

"The ring-fence commitment is very clear. It is that we will spend 0.7 percent of our gross national income (on development). We will reach that target in 2013," Mitchell said in an interview. British aid was around 0.56 percent of gross national income now, he said.

Mitchell said the idea of a transaction tax on financial transactions, with part of the proceeds going to international development, was a "very interesting idea".

But it would have to apply universally to avoid putting Britain's financial services sector at a disadvantage, he said.

BERLUSCONI CRITICISED

Mitchell, a former banker and soldier, said the world's poorest people had been hit hardest by the financial crisis. That showed how important it was for donors to keep their promises, he said.

It was "completely unacceptable" that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had failed to live up to a 2005 pledge to increase aid to Africa, he said. Berlusconi has acknowledged aid was cut but has pledged to get back on track within three years.

A Conservative government would give greater priority to development work in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mitchell said.

Security forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan are both battling militants and Britain has 9,500 troops in Afghanistan.

"The more successful we are in promoting livelihoods and education and development of opportunity in Pakistan the less successful the militants will be," said Mitchell, just back from a visit to Pakistan.

"We will do more there and how much we do will be dictated by our ability to secure real value for money," he said.

The same applied to Afghanistan, he said. "We need to make sure the effectiveness of our development (aid) in Afghanistan is greatly increased," he said.

Both countries are already high priorities for the Labour government, which pledged 510 million pounds of aid to Afghanistan and 665 million pounds to Pakistan from 2009-2013.

Britain is giving some aid to Zimbabwe after President Robert Mugabe and rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai formed a power-sharing government last year. But it is reluctant to give large-scale development aid until it sees more reforms.

Mitchell said there would "come a point where the Foreign Office determines that we can do more in Zimbabwe."

If the Conservatives were in power then, "Britain would seek to lead a Commonwealth and international community development initiative in Zimbabwe," he said, adding that Britain's role could be to help refurbish the country's dilapidated schools.

(Editing by Matthew Jones)

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