You don’t win general elections in Britain by fighting poverty in poor countries. That has to be good news for David Cameron, because the Conservative programme on international development would be a sure-fire vote loser.
Whatever your take on New Labour, its credentials on development are impressive. As a nation we have become more generous in our dealings with the world’s poorest people, moving from the lower leagues to the premier division of leadership on poverty reduction.
Aid has been an important part of the transition. The £9bn development assistance programme represents 0.5% of our GDP – three times the share in 1997. Britain has spearheaded global financing initiatives on HIV/Aids, malaria and child immunisation. And Gordon Brown was a key player in reducing Africa’s debt burden. You can see the benefits in a country like Tanzania, where debt relief helped to finance the removal of school fees and put another 3 million kids in classes.
It’s a tough act to follow. But that’s no excuse for what the Conservatives offer. Take the aid budget. The government has pledged not just to avoid cuts but to maintain pre-crisis spending commitments. It is now committed to making the UN target of spending 0.7% of GDP on aid a legally binding commitment. No other donor has gone this far. Cameron’s response has been a study in evasion.
He says that aid will be protected and that he backs the 2013 goal. But he has refused to endorse a legally binding target. And he has not ruled out financing climate change commitments from the aid budget – a move that would mean real cuts.
With the Conservatives committed to early and deep cuts in the budget, deficit aid spending is bound to come under the spotlight. This is a soft target, partly because there is no constituency for aid on the Tory backbenches. In a recent poll of prospective Conservative candidates, 90% saw no reason to make the protection of the aid budget a priority. As George Osborne looks to trim public spending while financing an inheritance tax handout, it’s unlikely he will go to the wall to defend the aid budget.
Aid spending is not the only problem. The green paper One World Conservativism makes it clear that the Conservatives will use aid to roll back the state in key services. “We bring a natural scepticism about government schemes,” as page 1 puts it. Public education systems in poor countries are failing the poor, so the argument runs. The solution: more private schools in slums, with governments using vouchers, bursaries and the public budget to support the development of non-state providers.
Sounds familiar? This is an agenda for exporting to poor countries Michael Gove’s “Swedish model” plan for schools in Britain. It is based on the same reductionist idea that education problems rooted in poverty, extreme inequality and social disadvantage can be tackled by expanding parental choice and shifting resources from public provision to private suppliers.
There is plenty wrong with public education in poor countries. That is why so many desperately poor parents resort to poor-quality private providers. But if the public education system is broken, then the challenge is to fix it, not to bypass it. Transplanting reforms from a country like Sweden, with its high-performing schools and low levels of inequality, into Britain is questionable. Applying them to slums in Lagos or Nairobi is positively silly.
Over the past decade aid has played a key role in strengthening public education across Africa. It has helped put over 10 million children in school. Progress on quality has been less encouraging, partly because of chronic under-financing and an annual deficit of 1.2 million teachers. Britain should be leading global efforts to tackle these problems, not treating the region as a laboratory for market-based ideology.
To be fair, the Conservatives have come up with some strikingly original ideas. My personal favourite is the MyAid fund, a proposal to allocate multimillion-pound financing across 10 projects according to a national online vote. So if 20% of the population vote for, say, immunisation in Malawi, that’s where 20% of the money will go. The fact that the voting public may not know much about health services in Malawi is clearly not an issue.
Perhaps the Conservative party could hire the X Factor judges to champion the different causes and guide our choice. Better still, why not ask them to write the development manifesto?