Two departments, two protected budgets. If there is one decision that got certain teeth gnashing, it was the coalition government's decision to protect health and international development spending. "It's something Britain should be very proud of," retorts Alan Duncan, minister at the Department for International Development (DfID). "Just because bankers and politicians have made such a mess of Britain doesn't mean that we should make the poorest people in the world pay the price for such incompetence."

In return, the Conservative politicians at DfID are now keen to make development a business of results. Mosquito nets and inoculations are being eagerly counted, reviews at various levels have been set, including a humanitarian emergency response review led by Paddy Ashdown and a new aid watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), has been established. The department certainly wants to look busy.

International development is not simply a case of counting how many boxes of medicine have been sent out to poorer countries in the world. Duncan describes DfID's different goals as: "A balanced portfolio of the clearly measurable and the not so measureable but definitely desirable."

How does DfID justify the generous spending settlement? "Look, for instance, at what we're doing in Yemen," Duncan replies. "If we invest money in trying to prevent state failure, how do you measure the value of that? You can certainly measure failure itself when it does happen in Afghanistan or Somalia. But it's very difficult to measure the value of preventing it. That's not going to stop us."

Stopping states sliding into chaos is the ambitious part. But justifying the work domestically often proves more troublesome. It has become one of the key planks of Cameron Conservatism - a spending commitment that shows the party has changed. The Conservative leader continued a trip to Rwanda when flooding hit his constituency in 2007. Duncan explains: "When I was shadow secretary of state for international development under Michael Howard, we weren't quite as precise about it. But we pretty well clearly committed to 0.7 per cent then." Now, in the coalition government: "It ranks higher up the cabinet table than ever before. It's strongly integrated into the National Security Council structure with the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. Instead of being an empire apart, it's an integrated force for good, strongly entrenched in the upper echelons of government."

DfID is not universally popular in Britain however.

Duncan says scepticism largely comes from 'aggressive press attitudes' which he finds 'increasingly distasteful and based on completely false premises'

He lists some press stereotypes: "DFID are a bunch of lefties", "they give money to corrupt dictators" and "half the money goes off to Switzerland". But Duncan says that if you ask people a question like ‘should we have helped after the floods in Pakistan?', they understand the need to contribute. "It does not go to corrupt dictators, because we do not give direct budget support to dodgy governments," he says.

When asked how DfID promotes better governance in troubled countries, Duncan explains: "We've equipped the Palestinian authority to be an effective, non-corrupt, wellplanned, financially-structured authority. Making Palestine fit in government, makes them fit for nationhood." And discussing another country of DfID interest, Duncan adds: "In Yemen we're doing a lot with governance, not just on the financial side, but on preparing for elections, access to justice, possible devolving of power to 300 district levels."

Getting donor countries to actually produce the goods has proved a problem so far. Pledges have been ignored. Can Britain "which is exemplar" persuade other countries to follow its 0.7 per cent of GDP promise? "We can hold our head high in forums abroad," says Duncan, which is obviously not the same thing. Persuading other countries to provide real cash may be a considerable challenge.

A former oil trader who spent 25 years travelling the world, he is "loving" his current role which "fits me like a glove". "I'm really enjoying the Middle East, the poverty work in places like Bangladesh and Nepal and seeing the financial institutions in New York and Washington." But he is firmly aware that he must show the results of DfID's work to a British audience.

This article was first published in Total Politics magazine.

Tags: Alan Duncan, Development, Issue 30