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The coalition in development: a bluer shade of green

28 May 2010

First posted on Progress Online as part of Steve’s regular column.

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The Lib Dems have not fought the corner of international development – they are absent from DfID and big ideas such as the Robin Hood Tax have been dropped

When analysing the influence of the coalition partners on their joint programme for international development, we don’t need The Guardian’s brilliant analysis of the coalition colour schemes. Whereas the overall pea-green agreement was deemed in this analysis to be more Liberal than Conservative (based on hue, not policy), the realm of global poverty seems to be true blue territory.

Blue doesn’t mean all bad, but nervousness abounds. Whilst the coalition agreement did promise to bind into law the commitment to provide 0.7 per cent of GNI in aid, and included positive commitments like support for an Arms Trade Treaty, such legislation was conspicious by its absence in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech. This is despite an explicit manifesto commitment from the Conservatives that they would do so in the first session.

DfID do claim they still plan to do this in future legislative sessions, but by falling short at the first hurdle questions are bound to be raised, not just at the Conservatives, but at the coalition’s self-styled ‘good cops’ too.

Lib Dems have long evangelised about development, but by failing to demand a ministerial post – an honour shared with only DEFRA, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Wales Office – it does mean that there is no coalition partner keeping an eye on how aid money is counted and how it is spent.

Worries exist that departments are looking for expenditure to be redefined so that it counts towards the aid budget. Items such as looking after (and even repatriation of) refugees or providing university scholarships to UK institutions are all permissible under loose OECD regulations defining what can count as aid, even if they bear little resemblance to what most people would understand by the term. Creative accounting would help the coalition keep its promise on paper, but it wouldn’t be of much use to poor communities on the ground.

The Lib Dems not only lack any ministerial post, they have also failed to include any of their distinctive policies that could have added a more progressive edge to the coalition agreement. No Robin Hood Tax to stabilise the banks and fund poverty reduction, no clear commitment to crack down on tax havens to tackle corruption and prevent capital flight, and no promise that the funds needed to help countries adapt to climate change will not be taken from the aid budget.

These are potentially big concessions. Climate change funding could dwarf the aid budget if not ringfenced, capital flight can be more debilitating than aid shortfalls, and the Robin Hood Tax could have added a genuinely radical and innovative solution to heal financial fissures at home and abroad.

And nor will the Lib Dems be in a position to ensure the UK’s position in trade deals are fair and progressive, nor demand the new National Security Council does not lead to development policy serving foreign policy aims rather than poverty reduction, nor press for the global leadership role played by successive prime ministers and secretaries of state over the last 13 years.

Which begs the question, why did they not fight a bit harder for the cause of global poverty, and what’s the point of a good cop if you’re not in the interrogation room when the important questions are being asked?

 Steve Cockburn is an anti-poverty campaigner and member of Labour Campaign for International Development

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