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After the reshuffle: moving from transport to development

Today I start the day with much more in common with the International Development Secretary than yesterday, as Justine Greening replaces Andrew Mitchell in the government post that probably has more influence over my work at Save the Children than any other.

Not only is Ms Greening female, state-educated and a northerner living in the capital, she’s just made the move from the transport sector to development – a career change I made myself in 2005.

I left my public affairs job at one of the largest train companies in the south of England for a job at Save the Children. So as Ms Greening takes her seat at her new desk at the Department for International Development (DfID), I’ll add my two cents to the many bits of advice she’ll receive today with a few reflections on the two sectors.

From planes to people

Moving from transport to development isn’t the most obvious career move – development has a smaller budget and lower profile in government, but the rewards in terms of job satisfaction are infinitely higher.

Day-to-day dealings in transport are about machines – planes, trains and automobiles – whereas development is about saving the lives of children and improving the lives of whole communities in some of the world’s poorest countries.

The job also comes with an opportunity to visit some of the most remote and impoverished, but often most beautiful, places in the world and meet amazing and inspiring people. Of course, that isn’t to imply that the views from Salisbury engineering depot weren’t lovely and the train crew not delightful.

The biggest difference I had to get used to after the move was not always being the bad guy. In transport, I was always on the back foot, either defending overrunning engineering works and broken down trains, or apologising because no one in Portsmouth would be able to get to work that morning.

Leaves on the line, wrong type of snow, that sort of thing. But in international development, the core of our business is helping those who have less than we do. It is morally the right thing to do and something to be proud of.

Although there will be problems to solve and difficult decisions to defend, overall DfID has a success story to tell. The department is a global leader and its recent track record under Mitchell has been strong, particularly on vaccinations and family planning.

Which brings me to monitoring results; something that will be all too familiar to Ms Greening.

Value for money

The transport sector has long been obsessed with performance and the development sector is increasingly holding itself to similar standards of accountability and reporting.

The difference is that transport is much easier to measure – we can accurately report the number of trains or planes that arrived on time and keep track of customer satisfaction.

Development is different. We can count the number of teachers trained and the number of children in school, but how do we accurately measure the quality of their training and education?

How do we know if those children have the skills they need to fulfil their potential and contribute to the progress of their family, community or country?

If we immunise a million children, how do we know how many of their lives were saved by the vaccine? These questions are increasingly important as we work to demonstrate that British aid spending works and is value for money.

This will be the new Secretary of State’s biggest challenge. Few would dispute the need for our transport network in the UK; we all rely on the roads, rails, and runways, regardless of how much we complain about them.

Many more question the value of spending taxpayer’s money overseas, particularly when the budget is tight.

We only spend a small amount on overseas aid – less than a penny in every pound – and for that we’re making a huge and positive difference – something in which the entire nation can take pride.

It will be a challenging job but an immensely rewarding one. I wish Ms Greening every luck in her new post.


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