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Britain’s foreign aid minister, Priti Patel, has told the Guardian she is fed up with the myth that all she does is sit at her desk “writing cheques to North Korea”, in her most robust response yet to critics of the foreign aid budget.

On a surprise visit to drought-stricken east Africa on Saturday, Priti Patel, the international development secretary, announced a new £60m package for Somalia, and £30m for Ethiopia, saying the sharp rise in numbers of people needing food, water and shelter meant it was critical to stop the food crisis becoming the kind of famine which killed a quarter of a million people in Somalia in 2011.

“The truth is that UK development influence is massive, greater than our foreign policy, and this isn’t just about money, Britain is saving lives and bringing stability and security, and that’s good for our economy and for what comes to our doorstep.”

She said Britain could take much of the credit for having averted a huge loss of life so far this year.

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, her first since last week’s cabinet reshuffle that saw her reappointment to the role, Patel said it was UK investment in “resilience” and the early lead taken by Department for International Development which put £110m into Somalia in January and persuaded the World Bank to add another £40m – which had kept the death rate down.

“Britain can stand tall on this one. People need feeding and people need shelter, people are dying right now from cholera and measles. Famine is tragic, I cannot find the words to describe how appalling the situation in South Sudan is, children wasting away, children in camps alone because their parents have been murdered.

“I was the one who was on the phone to UN secretary general Guterres in January, calling the UN out on this, and the [aid] agencies. We have to be integrated on this.

“My priority is saving lives but in development that doesn’t just mean putting food in mouths, that means investing in jobs and peace and stability, in education.”

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