Ivan Lewis MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development writes for the House Magazine’s Conference Edition
In these difficult times it is right that we work across the political divide to make the case for UK aid and development. But this should not be mistaken for a new political consensus. Labour and the Tories remain ‘poles apart’ on fundamental development values and policies. Global social justice and universal human rights are rooted in our DNA and form a central part of our approach to the challenges of a complex, rapidly changing world. In contrast, notwithstanding the genuine commitment of some individuals, the Tories view aid as a crude political tool to detoxify a brand which for many voters remains nasty, inward looking and lacking in compassion. Many in their ranks believe individual acts of charity not the state should be the entirety of the UK’s contribution. For Labour making poverty history is our eternal, enduring mission not a campaign slogan. For the Tories poverty is an inevitable consequence of an unequal society.
In the context of a ‘new’ world where 75% of the world’s poorest now live in middle income countries, and in the midst of a grave financial crisis and the Arab spring it has never been more important to show how Labour values and policies would mean very different UK development policy. It is also important never to forget our proud legacy of progressive change: creating DFID as a cabinet-level department, building a Governmental development agency of unique stature, committing to the 0.7 target. Perhaps most importantly, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s world leadership on the Millennium Development Goals, writing off debt and supporting Africa’s development. This is a record which deserves more than a footnote in history.
After two years in Government the Tory approach to development is taking shape. Paternalistic charity, an ideologically driven expansion of the private sector and prioritisation of short-term easy to measure results over long-term sustainable change. Thus far, the Tories and Lib Dem coalition partners have broken their promise and failed to enshrine Labour’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on development assistance in law. We wait to see if and how they will meet the 0.7% spending target by 2013. One can only assume ideology has driven their decision to abandon our policy of supporting developing countries to remove charges for healthcare and intention to divert limited education resources to supporting voucher schemes. There is little evidence of DFID playing a leading role in cross-Government work on issues such as sustainability, trade and tax policy. For example, recent Treasury rule changes which allow UK based multinational companies to avoid paying approximately £4 billion in tax to developing countries were met with silence from Andrew Mitchell.
While we supported the recent London Hunger Summit, neither Cameron nor Osborne has sought to use their political capital to focus the G8 or G20 on development issues, unlike in the Blair and Brown years. Tory hostility to the EU and wider multilateral working weakens UK influence at a time when they will be spending an increasing proportion of taxpayers’ money through this route. While welcoming David Cameron’s appointment as co-chair of the UN leadership group considering a new development framework beyond 2015 I am concerned that he will be a “roadblock” to the radical new approach which recognises the success of the MDGs but acknowledges they no longer match the pace and scale of global change.
People have a right to ask how Labour will be different. Like my Shadow Cabinet colleagues I am working with a wide range of stakeholders to develop an exciting agenda for the future. Within the 0.7% ‘envelope’ how should a future Labour Government prioritise spending and seek to trigger additional forms of innovative non-state finance? How can we demonstrate value for money and results while supporting long-term sustainable change? How can Government support collaboration between civil society and the private sector? How can we ensure the voice of UK diaspora communities and the recipients of our aid in developing countries shape and evaluate future policy? How can we better support the empowerment of women as an essential element in breaking the cycle of failure in fragile and conflict ridden states? How can we help to build a new global political, civil society and public progressive movement for change committed to tackling the big issues of growing inequality, resource scarcity, climate change, trade, governance and universal human rights? In the aftermath of the financial crisis how can we build a new economy with responsible capitalism as the key driver of sustainable growth? How can we use our distinct role in the world to forge alliances bringing together the EU, US and new world political and economic powers to pursue a ‘common good’ agenda? How can we break down Government silos so DFID plays a key role in a strategic UK Government approach to global challenges?
By asking these questions we are already signalling a very different vision of a post-2015 world at home and abroad. But it is our answers which will determine the scale of our ambition. Development should be at the heart of a new global covenant binding together developing, middle income and developed countries with a practical plan to build a fairer, more secure and sustainable world. Our mission should remain to transform make poverty history from a noble cause to a reality.