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Overseas aid and the diva who develops

Frances Rafferty finds Lady Chalker resilient in the face of war and famine. She has witnessed some of the most tragic events the world has suffered in the last year, jetting across a globe which is tearing itself apart with war and attempted genocide. And her appearances among the dying in Rwanda and bombed in Bosnia have earned Baroness Lynda Chalker the unlikely soubriquet of "development's diva".

Even if foreign aid has this year been sullied by the Pergau dam affair, Lady Chalker still has a lot to be proud of as minister at the Overseas Development Administration. For while the Malaysian scandal rumbles on, and elsewhere in the world famine aid may have only partially solved problems, some of the education projects pioneered by her department have produced more solid results.

"In the last financial year about Pounds 117 million was spent directly on educational projects - and also parallel projects - where we are trying to help people to help themselves," she said.

"The administration has a motto: 'If a man is hungry don't give him a fish, give him a fishing rod', and that applies to education as well.

"We can't get good governments in developing countries unless people are literate and numerate; likewise we can't help people who are unable to read instructions on something as simple as a packet of seeds."

One of the major thrusts in development policy is to promote literacy, particularly among girls and women.

"We find that where girls' and women's education goes beyond the ages of 10 to 12, they have the enhanced ability to make critical choices about things like family size, health, and the way they decide to use their limited resources. Occasionally, there are places in the world where people would prefer to keep their women less educated and less able to contribute - but that's changing and changing very fast, even in strict Muslim communities, when we run our projects," she said.

It is only when there is some sort of political stability that such projects as the successful female literacy programme for Andhra Pradesh in southern India can take off. The ODA is also giving to support 150 primary school teachers in that part of India, which has cost Pounds 32m over the year. There is a major new project in Zambia this year for improving English, maths and science, which it is hoped will revolutionise how children can then cope with further training after primary school and the organisation is running a big school textbook project in Jamaica.

There are many more places which will be hungry for similar schemes. In Rwanda, where half the country's teachers have been murdered, education aid will inevitably be needed, but a more stable political situation will be required.

One of the most exciting events Lady Chalker watched last year was the emergence of the first democratically-elected government in South Africa. For many years, she had been one of the more bullish supporters in the Conservative party of the movement against apartheid.

She said: "For years, even before the change of government in South Africa, we have been running something called the Moltena project - training the teacher trainers - because of its ability to feed down into the smaller schools from teaching the original teacher trainers."

Previously Lady Chalker had visited the black townships armed with books, pencils and blackboards, but now, in co-operation with Mandela's government of national unity, the British Government can make a direct input.

She said: "South Africa is a very exciting development and we are very committed to instil into children whose school attendance has been very patchy the importance of learning. School was not possible in many areas beforehand because they didn't have the teachers, blackboards, pencils and textbooks.

"But now they have this new beginning and the system is starting to sort itself out, they are having help from us on curriculum development and also help to reorganise the education system which was divided (along racial and geographical grounds) into 19 different departments.

The emerging countries in eastern Europe and former Soviet Union countries have created new demands on the ODA, especially with their great thirst for learning English. Next April, Lady Chalker will open a new English school in Prague, which she hopes will become part of a network.

In the tragic and tumultuous events of the last year, Lady Chalker has been particularly moved by the plight and suffering of children caught in adults' wars.

She said: "More than 120,000 have been killed in Rwanda and many thousands in Bosnia - it's the innocence of the children that is most heart-breaking and the fact that if we don't give them a chance they are going to be unable to compete with those children who have been much more fortunate than them."

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