International aid gives UK respect, says Alan Duncan

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Many Syrian refugees in Lebanon live without running water or sanitation

It's that time of year to reflect, consider others and to look forward.

Many of the memorable images that stick in the mind from 2013 - all too sadly - are from disasters, either man-made or natural. The Syrian civil war, the snow-covered refugee camps and the typhoon in the Philippines have dominated the headlines.

It's a reminder that bad news travels faster. But the good news here is the generosity of ordinary British people.

Even when money is tight, people are prepared to dig deep into their pockets.

It's a theme that was picked up by Alan Duncan, a minister in the Department for International Development (DFID).

And after three and a half years in the job, the minister knows which government levers to pull when Britain needs to respond.

"This is an amazing country when faced with a humanitarian disaster, no matter where in the world. The generosity of ordinary people is great," he told me.

More than £100m raised through public appeals and British government aid is now helping the Philippines with its repair work.

'Should be proud'

"Which is why we, as a government department, try to match whatever is raised by the public," Mr Duncan added.

"The British people should be immensely proud of how they've responded."

A depot in Dubai holds huge British stocks of emergency tents and blankets. They're ready to be despatched in an instant to the latest disaster zone.

"We are preparing for the risk of an earthquake in Nepal or Kathmandu. That's very likely," added Mr Duncan.

"We know that over the next few years there will be cyclones in India and floods in Bangladesh. You can prepare by storing the right type of buildings that don't automatically get washed away.

Image copyright Department for International Development
Image caption Alan Duncan MP visited a DFID-funded maternity hospital in Biratnagar, Nepal, on a fact-finding trip

"And you can train people, so they know how to respond."

Alan Duncan is the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, one of the more comfortable and affluent areas of the East Midlands.

He rejects calls from some in his party, both locally and nationally, for budget cuts in international aid.

'Right thing to do'

His department's budget in the new financial year will top £10.3bn, and will rise to £11.1bn the following year.

Alan Duncan says that'll help the UK reach an important UN target for richer countries, by giving 0.7% of its annual spending to international development.

"OK, there's austerity at home and our international development budget has gone up. But it's been and continues to be the right thing to do," he added.

"It's a more dangerous world. Just look at Syria and Egypt. There are more natural disasters.

"But if you were to cut the budget down to zero, it would not be big enough to solve all the other problems people say the UK has got.

"It's only about 1% of total government spending. That's not a huge amount. And yes, our international development gives us enormous respect around the world," he told me.

Compassion fatigue? There's no sign of it when the Disasters' Emergency Committee makes its latest appeal. And there's no sign of fatigue from the ever energetic Alan Duncan.