Alan was interviewed by a group of children who helped him get in to the Red Nose Day Spirit on Friday 18 March. The visit was organised by First News, a weekly children’s newspaper aimed at 7-14 year olds.
The children presented him with a very special gift - a red nose all of his own.
Readers Katie, Mohammed, Kyle and Ellie had been to the Department for International Development (DFID) to quiz Mr Duncan on world affairs, following other First News interviews with Prime Minister David Cameron, and Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne.
Alan's encounter with the mini-Paxmans went as follows:
What is the difference between the International Development Department
and the Foreign Office?
We try to take a long term view to help countries get themselves out of poverty, to build a good government and be able to look after themselves. The Foreign Office is more about dealing with diplomacy, dealing with foreigners, dealing with the world’s foreign problems. But we are dealing with a more specific part of other countries, which is trying to lift them out of poverty. So we are trying to make sure that if you are a mother giving birth to a child, you don’t die. And if you are a little baby you don’t die within five years, which in some poor countries, they do. We’re doing things like inoculating people so that they don’t get TB or polio, or things like that.
Why do we spend money on other countries when we have financial problems in the UK?
What you are seeing at the moment is that we are going through a bad period because the country really didn’t handle its money very well. The bankers made a mess of it and the Government spent too much money. So we’ve got a financial squeeze on the country. Our view is we’re still relatively rich and we shouldn’t suddenly pull the rug from underneath the poorest people in the world and make them suffer even more just because we made a mess of our country. So that’s why. We’re the first country in the world to promise to spend 0.7% of our country’s national income on the world’s poorest. I’m quite proud that we’re doing what we’re doing. If you had £100, would you give 50p to a beggar in the street? Yes, you probably would.
What do you think events in Libya mean for the world and should we be interfering?
All countries are different. What you have in the Arab world is a huge population explosion in those countries where half of the people are under the age of 20. So you have this massive population wave coming up where their governments can’t give them jobs and are finding it difficult to make it feel like they are being paid enough. So there’s an explosion of anger. They feel that their governments aren’t delivering, that they are not democratic. So, in a country like Egypt, they have someone who has been there for 30 years and Gaddafi has been there 40 years, and no-one really elected him, so they are saying: “Oi, we want a proper government!” In the case of Gaddafi, he is a very bad, powerful man who is capable of gassing or shooting his own people which is why Libya is at the top of the list, because it is the worst. Libya is just a big mess.
Who chooses which countries to help? Are we helping Japan?
When you mention Japan you are thinking about disaster relief. In terms of disaster we’ll help anybody but, obviously, Japan, is far better equipped to cope with its own problems than a country like Pakistan. So we’re going to concentrate on those poor countries, with a weak government with no resources to cope with disaster. Last week I was in Nepal. Nepal is a poor country, next to India. The capital of Nepal is Kathmandu and it had a massive earthquake in 1934. All the experts say that it should probably have another one, but it hasn’t. But there is a big danger that there will be an earthquake in Kathmandu. There has been lots of building there. In 1934 there were half a million people living there. Now there are five million. If there’s an earthquake there will be the most awful disaster. So one of the things I have been doing was saying we have to make serious plans if there is a disaster. That’s an example of how we picked Nepal. We’ve just had a complete review of the department – not just how much money we put in, but what we get out the other end. So, if I put in £1 million, I want to know how many lives it saves, or how many children get inoculated against a disease. Poverty is the thing.
Why aren’t more children around the world able to go to school when it is their right?
Rights are rights but you have to have the resources to deliver them. Some poor countries don’t have these resources, which is why we do what we do. One of the top priorities we have is to get both girls and boys at school and, if possible, to make sure that they don’t just leave at 12. So many girls become mothers at the age of 15 and they’ve got no life after that. They are stuck, and they are used and it’s not right. We want girls to become women who can stand on their own two feet and not be pushed around.
What’s the most difficult question that you have ever been asked?
That one! I don’t know. I’m always asked difficult ones. I think a lot of journalists just try to ask a question that is designed to trip you up, to try and get an answer which they can turn and make it look like you said something, when you haven’t. When people ask: “Why don’t politicians answer questions?”, we know that, when we are honest, the press will twist it. So we are always having to try to tread very carefully.
Does the government give money to charities like Save the Children and Comic Relief?
Yes, we work very closely with them and we do it exactly the same way as I said earlier. We look for value for money. If we give £100 million a year to Bangladesh, we’ll leave a lot of power with the DFID office in Bandladesh. But, for instance, if they wanted to get fresh water to a village, we might have a contract with Save The Children where we say we’ll make £2 million available, and, with that £2 million, you’ve got to deliver 200 fresh water taps to so many villages. For disaster relief we do a lot of things with Oxfam, Save the Children, people like that. We are a Government department, not a whole army of people, so we can’t do everything ourselves.
What effect will climate change have on poor countries?
Climate change is a very big issue, especially in poor countries, because, if the climate changes and there is less rainful, they have a food problem. Or, if there is too much rainfall, they have a flood problem. So, we’ve got lots of plans to stop the cause, and to stop the problems that we know are going to happen. So we are spending a lot of money on climate change in all countries.
Are boys and girls treated the same in poor countries?
They are by us, but not always by the poor countries. Our policy is to treat them the same to make sure that girls are not disadvantaged. What happens in poor, simple societies is that the men think that they are the bosses and they are a bit tough on the women, and we don’t think that’s right. It should be equal. It’s very important for women to be educated. If you change the way girls are treated, you can change the whole of society for the better, and that’s what we think should happen.