Guest post: Beyond aid, ending global poverty is about politics

Martin Drewry is Director of Health Poverty Action,  he writes here in a personal capacity 

Ending global poverty is not about providing aid. It is about politics. The solutions to mass poverty lie in tackling its unjust causes, not relieving its symptoms through charity. Deep down, anyone who works in development knows this.

Yet if this is the case, why does the aid budget dominate development discourse so disproportionately? And – most importantly – how should a Labour government address this?

Health Poverty Action, along with 12 other African and UK NGOs, recently published figures that show the relative significance of aid as a financial resource flow to sub-Saharan Africa.

The research reveals that Africa is losing $192 billion to the rest of the world each year. This is across a range of areas – such as debt payments (often following irresponsible loans), repatriation of profits by multinational companies, illicit financial flows, and the costs of adapting to climate change that Africa did not cause. When compared with all the inflows into Africa – including loans, foreign investment and remittances – the continent suffers a net loss of $58 billion to the rest of the world each year.

And the total sum of aid it receives? A mere $30 billion.

This means the amount the rest of the world takes from Africa each year is roughly 6 and a half times the amount it gives back as aid. Yet this vital fact gets lost amid all the rhetoric about aid – which paints, instead, a distorted picture of an impoverished Africa reliant on the charitable generosity of its northern benefactors.

This in turn leads to growing public animosity towards the aid budget, especially at a time of domestic austerity. It can generate the same kinds of public emotions and perceptions that fuel the rise of UKIP. Why do they still need our financial support after all these years? What’s wrong with them? Why should we spend all our resources supporting foreigners?

If people know the truth, the emotions and perceptions generated lead to a totally different place. Why is the rich world still ripping of the world’s poorest after all these years? Why hasn’t it been stopped? It’s outrageous!

This understanding puts ordinary people in the UK on the same side as ordinary people in Africa, after all, they get ripped off by the powerful too . It also directs the political debate away from how generous we can continue to be, towards how we create a fairer world. In short, it puts the real solutions to mass poverty onto the public and political agenda.

A Labour Development policy that truly distinguishes us from the other parties must stop this focus on aid and charity. It must instead expose the truth about the rich world’s financial relationship with Africa, and set out an inspiring agenda to tackle it.

The Labour Party can do this, it’s what we live for. And we have done it before.

It was a Labour government that took an international lead on the issue of debt cancellation – one of the few times in history that a government has dramatically placed one of the key structural causes of mass poverty at the heart of its development policy.

And we can still think that way. Ivan Lewis, in a 2012 Labour conference speech, called for “Big global economic and social change” and set out a “social contract without borders” based on social justice. This was followed by the Post-2015 Vision for Labour Equality 2030, delivered in a rousing speech: “Progressives didn’t come into politics to explain the world as it is but to change the world.”

The notion of development as the pursuit of social and economic justice was similarly championed by Jim Murphy when he set out the role of DFID under Labour – in a speech encouragingly subtitled Development and Power. This was echoed in Labour’s recent policy consultation document, again emphasising development as an issue of justice and human rights.

Yet, despite all of this, the idea of development as primarily a question of how much aid we give through DFID is still central to most Labour policy communications. Indeed, aid occupied the top spot in the list of Labour responses in the policy consultation, and dominated Jim Murphy’s recent contribution to an event on tackling global inequality. In a recent campaign action organised by Health Poverty Action, members of the public wrote to Ed Miliband. They were calling for an end to this misleading and illogical discourse. They asked, instead, for Labour to set out a radical agenda to tackle to true causes of global poverty. The response they received was a letter thanking them for contacting him about the 0.7% target, and re-assuring them of Labour’s commitment to it.

This is obviously embarrassing – but it’s not the first time a political aide has failed to read a lobbying letter properly. What’s more worrying is the immediate assumption, as soon as development is mentioned, that the letter to reach for is the one about aid levels. The Labour Party I believe in can do better than that.

Continually portraying aid as the cornerstone of the UK’s relationship with Africa doesn’t help us electorally either.

26% of the UK public wrongly believes the government spends more on aid than education or pensions. At the same time a Com Res poll for Christian Aid shows that 74% of the UK public want action on our network of tax havens.

A Labour manifesto that really distinguishes us from the other parties must move firmly beyond the role of DFID. It must drop the irrational focus on aid, and instead communicate a social and economic justice-based agenda – coordinated, across-government -that tackles the true causes of mass poverty. It must be absolutely explicit that, under a Labour government, the UK’s primary contribution to ending global poverty will be to address the policies and practices that create it – including the roles of tax havens and corporate tax dodging, the effects of unregulated markets and unfair trade policies, the behaviour of large corporations, and the effects and causes of climate change.

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