Nickie Aiken: Educating girls must be at the heart of the UK’s G7 presidency

19 May

Nickie Aiken is MP for Cities of London & Westminster, and Conservative Party Vice Chairman (Women & Communities)

Covid-19 has unleashed a global learning crisis for children, and this affects girls most acutely. Billions of days of vital education have been lost, with children in low-income countries worst affected.

Save the Children’s analysis suggests that between 10-16 million children are estimated to be at risk of never returning to school due to the pandemic. To put that number into context, it is roughly equivalent to every child in the UK never getting back to the classroom.

The UK’s role as host of the G7 summit, and co-host of the Global Education Summit: Financing Global Partnership for Education (GPE) 2021-2025, offers a unique opportunity to ensure that Covid-19, which has taken so much from us, does not also quash a girls’ right to learn.

For girls like Mahadiya from Ethiopia, 13, the dire long-term consequences of the pandemic are already beginning to bite. She said “I wish the virus would just go away and I am able to continue my education. I don’t want to lose my hope of becoming an engineer.”

As I am the parent of two teenage children, imagining the anguish Mahadiya and her family must feel as her hopes for the future slip away, is all too close to home.

The Prime Minister is a driving force behind advancing girls’ education globally. The inequality and deprivation which excludes girls from learning is, in his words, “an absolute disgrace”. He champions this agenda because it is the right thing to do, but it is also the smart thing to do; education is an engine of global economic growth and advances gender equality. For instance, one year of secondary education increases women’s wages later in life by up to 20%, and something as simple as universal quality secondary education could avert 51 million child marriages by 2030.

Girls’ education is also a powerful tool for tackling climate change. Enhancing girls’ life skills through education helps to ensure that countries are better enabled to prepare for future climate shocks, and equips girls for jobs in the green sector. Every additional year of school for girls increases her country’s resilience to climate disasters.

Girls’ education really is, as the Prime Minister once called it, the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of the development toolkit. Making big investments in girls’ education now, will pay dividends in the long term by helping to create a thriving and prosperous global economy now, and for generations to come.

The G7 Summit and Global Partnership for Education replenishment could not come at a more important time. It is an opportunity for the UK to use its global influence and soft power to be a world leader in tackling the learning crisis faced by the world’s poorest children.

As I argued in my piece in the One Nation Conservatives’ Global Britain and Development Papers last year, girls’ education must be at the very heart of the UK’s approach to aid, international development and foreign policy. There is no better time to make that a reality than now in the UK’s unique window of opportunity.

If the world is to build back better in the wake of the pandemic, educating girls must be at the heart of the UKs G7 presidency. Not only is quality education every girls’ right; it is one of the most important investments in human development.

From my discussions, and in response to my questions in the House, I’ve been encouraged by the government’s commitment to put education at the core of its G7 agenda, and hope ministers lead on coordinated global action.

The UK should work with G7 nations to seize these opportunities to ensure that the most marginalised children, especially girls and those in fragile and conflict-affected states, are able to return to school and catch-up on lost learning.

The UK also has a leading diplomatic role to play as the co-host of the Global Partnership for Education summit to mobilise global finance to meet the $5 billion target for the next five years.

Even within the context of a temporarily reduced aid budget, it is realistic to hope that the UK itself will contribute £600 million to GPE to help foster strong and sustainable global education systems in some of the world’s poorest countries. This pledge will go a long way in delivering the Government’s commitment to girls.

Not only will financing GPE help get 46 million more girls into school, but it has the potential to lift millions out of poverty, and protect millions more girls from child marriage.

As the host of the G7, the UK will continue to have a leading role in the global Covid recovery. Girls’ education must be a core ingredient of the response in order to build healthy, green economies, and stem the increasing tide of poverty triggered by the pandemic.

Now more than ever, it is essential that girls’ education remains both a political and a rescoring priority for the FCDO, so that the PM’s commitments to girls are met in this unique window of opportunity.

Rob Sutton: Sir Philip Barton – a key player in Johnson’s quest for global Britain

5 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Sir Philip Barton, the British High Commissioner to India, has been announced as the incoming Permanent Under-Secretary of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He will take over from Sir Simon McDonald, who is stepping down at Johnson’s request, on September 1 and oversee the long-awaited merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID)

An FCO lifer, Barton will inherit complex internal dynamics and be vital to the success of Johnson’s mission to reshape Britain’s role on the world stage. He has been with the FCO since 1986, punctuated occasionally by secondments to the Cabinet Office. Early assignments included Caracas, Nicosia and Gibraltar, and he was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister under Major, then Blair.

From 2011 he was Deputy Head of Mission to the USA in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2016 he was High Commissioner to Pakistan, and he is currently serving as High Commissioner to India. He has been tested during political crises, as the Director General, Consular and Security at the time of the Salisbury poisonings and most recently as Director General of the Covid-19 Response at the Cabinet Office.

His appointment has thus far had a positive reception. Dominic Raab has called him an “outstanding public servant and diplomat” with “experience across all areas of foreign policy.” Sir Mark Sedwill said he “will bring to the role an understanding of overseas development funding together with experience of international relations.” Jeremy Hunt Tweeted that “he is one of the most thoughtful & diligent civil servants I worked with & carries great wisdom lightly.” Andrew Adonis described him as “an immensely able & experienced ambassador who is well equipped for the big challenge of heading the diplomatic service at this time of crisis.”

He is well-liked and trusted. It is important that he is perceived as a safe pair of hands and a natural choice within the civil service. With multiple high-profile civil servants stepping down since the 2019 general election, a controversial appointment to lead FCDO would have put No 10 on the back foot at a time when it should be looking to craft a positive vision for the future.

For Barton, the challenges are both internal and external. Within the FCDO, a new hierarchy must be built. Creating clear chains of command from two parallel organisations with competing interests will cause friction. Buzzwords like “coherence” and “integration” will seem premature if the new organisation is wrought with internal power struggles and turf wars. We should have some idea of Barton’s initial success by the end of September.

Long term, he will need to ensure the functions of the FCDO’s constituent departments can be executed. Tensions are an inevitability, and tailoring a unified mission will be difficult when commercial and political interests and poverty relief pull in different directions. All this as Britain seeks new trade deals across the globe and weighs its future relationship with Europe.

Barton appears to be an exceptionally good fit to take on these challenges. His background is less Eurocentric than his predecessors in the role. He looks away from Brussels and towards Commonwealth nations with whom Johnson will be eager to renew relationships.

His experiences will also help to ensure Britain continues to be a world leader in international development. Pakistan is one of the five biggest recipients of UK aid funding, and Barton’s time as High Commissioner will have given him a better understanding of the challenges of poverty relief than his peers appointed to industrialised European nations. This will go some way to settle the nerves of those who worry international development will be an afterthought for the new office.

Barton will take the helm at the FCDO at a time of internal upheaval and international uncertainty. His career path is typical enough to avoid controversy but his specific experiences may prove invaluable to performing the multiple tasks which his success will depend upon. The Government aims to complete the formation of FCDO by the end of September, so we will know soon enough whether he is up to the task.