Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Development dilemmas

Over Labour’s 13 years in office, Britain’s reputation on international development was transformed. Instead of cutting aid, as our predecessors had done, we tripled it. Instead of subsidising British firms with it, we passed landmark legislation to make it illegal to spend aid on anything other than poverty reduction. Instead of subsuming it into the Foreign Office, we gave development a seat at the top table with a separate department carrying real cabinet clout. And instead of treating aid as synonymous with development, our prime ministers spent real political capital, inside government and out, picking fights on conflict, debt relief, climate change and trade.

Britain’s record on international development was one of the great success stories of the Blair-Brown years, but many of the operating assumptions of the period are now redundant. During the long boom, ‘foreign policy’ was generally deemed to be for relationships with the first and second worlds, while ‘development policy’ governed our relationship with the third. But now the geography of poverty has shifted decisively, meaning the majority of poor people are no longer to be found in poor countries. At the same time the lift-off of the BRICS has turned new economic powerhouses from recipients of aid to donors of it, while Africa has been transformed from the ‘hopeless continent’ to the world’s fastest-growing one.

The domestic politics of development are changing too. The prime minister has been markedly reluctant to put in the hard graft required to land big development breakthroughs in international negotiations, and his ambition rarely stretches beyond a view of aid as charity to encompass the trickier social justice questions of climate, inequality and tax. Those Conservative failings have combined with the resurgence of protectionism in some Labour circles to seriously dampen global expectations about Britain being an indispensible development partner after 2015. At the same time, even if DFID’s budget is being underspent in practice, in theory it is a matter of cross-party consensus, meaning the fight is not about whether to spend abroad but why. And Ed Miliband’s relative silence on foreign affairs leaves the field wide open for him to confound pessimistic expectations by engaging seriously with today’s development dilemmas.

Chief among those is the question of whether and how development policy should serve wider foreign policy objectives. In a world where, as Rachel Briggs notes, three-quarters of al-Qaida leaders are now in Africa and China spans the continent distributing condition-free largesse, where does the projection of Britain’s foreign policy interest in stability end and our development interest in spreading prosperity begin?

Fraser Nelson overstates his case when he argues ‘If (foreign governments) want to build schools for girls, we apparently have a bottomless aid budget. But we can’t send people to train the soldiers who would stop that school being burnt down. It makes no sense’, but he is right that the development community reacts furiously to anything that looks like ‘diverting money from schools to soldiers’. Campaigners do resist what they call ‘the securitisation of aid’ even in those instances when spending on security is precisely what is needed to relieve poverty or to fulfil other (progressive) objectives like securing free and fair elections. But this is not one of those simple cases where bleeding hearts and hard heads are in conflict. The development lobby is also right that the elision of foreign and development priorities would come at the expense of the latter, as is already happening to a degree with DFID’s effective downgrade to an aid administrator instead of the cross-governmental powerhouse of old.

So if ‘policy coherence’ really means ‘foreign policy first’, how should DFID prioritise if the countries which are the breeding grounds for terror are not the same ones with the greatest incidence of poverty? Should a combustible Nigeria, at 153 in the UN Human Development Index, command more attention than stable Sierra Leone, languishing at 177? Should aid money be spent, as it is by the United States, more in the powder keg of the Middle East than the desperation zones of sub-Saharan Africa?

The question of whether development cooperation is a reward for being ‘helpful’ to British interests or ‘doing the right thing by their own people’ becomes particularly fraught when we have to spell out what good behaviour really looks like. Do we mean that a country is a model of democracy? If so, wave goodbye to Rwanda and Vietnam as development success stories. Or do we mean that the country observes human rights norms? If so, which ones? We have threatened to cut aid to countries with homophobic laws and yet continue to pour money in to nations which oppress women. And then there are those countries, like Zimbabwe, where aid helps ordinary people survive the worst excesses of disgraceful regimes, but arguably also enables those governments to stay in power. Prioritising countries for British support on the basis of poverty alone does nothing to secure the human rights of poor people and arguably actually makes us blind to them.

The key final dilemma is playing out particularly painfully for the coalition right now. The dramatic concentration of poverty in middle-income countries raises a very real challenge about what development was all about in the first place. Is our policy designed to help poor people, or poor countries? If the former, it would mean continuing to give money to a country like India which has a nuclear programme but also more poor people than all the countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined, and to Pakistan, where poverty is rife but elites aren’t paying their way. When does inequality in another country become our business, and how far should our taxpayers subsidise those abroad who give the appearance of caring about the hardship of their fellow citizens less than we do?

If, instead, development is really about changing poor countries, that means, as Paul Collier argues, focusing on the very places where our efforts are most likely to fail and aid can fall into the wrong hands. The British public gives on Red Nose Night because they want to invest in fast, tangible results like giving children immunisations and the chance to go to school: they haven’t shown much appetite for the terror vortex of Somalia and the risk that some of their hard-earned cash could go walkabout with extremists.

Ed Miliband has rescheduled his planned visit to India, a major geostrategic actor and a country that contains both some of the richest people in the world and some of the biggest slums on earth. It is a chance to reflect on the role he wants the UK to play in a world of shifting power and widening inequality. Sketching out a distinctly Labour answer to the thorny progressive dilemmas thrown up by global poverty in the 21st century would be a good place to start.


Questions to discuss:

1)    Should aid be used as an instrument of foreign policy? If so, how? If not, why not?

2)    Which should have primacy in development policy: poverty reduction or human rights?

3)    Should we focus our efforts on helping poor countries, or poor people?


Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF. He tweets @ajwsmall.

Photo: Sgt Ralph Merry ABIPP RAF; Ministry of Defence

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Kirsty McNeill and Andrew Small

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He tweets @ajwsmall

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