International aid – a way to show post-Brexit Britain hasn’t turned its back on the world

On his last day in Downing Street, David Cameron said one of his proudest achievements was to honour the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international aid.

It was partly an attempt to stake out his legacy and partly a pitch to his successor, Theresa May, to stick to, what remains, a Conservative manifesto pledge.

Unfortunately for Cameron, even though he has an honourable record on aid, his legacy will be dominated by Brexit.

The former Prime Minister is destined to be remembered as the man who called the referendum on the UK remaining a member of the European Union and lost it, causing a political and economic shock that continues to reverberate well beyond the Britain.

As Mr Cameron was leaving his job, I was starting a new one as Director of News for Sightsavers, the NGO that works around the world to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote equality for people with visual impairments and other disabilities.

The sense of shock the vote to leave the EU, and the uncertain mood that has surrounded it among people working in international development in the UK, was one of the first things that struck me.

Despite David Cameron’s emphasis on international aid in his parting words, the leave vote has generated a lot of pessimism among development NGOs about the post-Brexit future.

Michael O’Donnell of the sector’s umbrella organisation, Bond, argued in a recent blog, that future aid funding was threatened by the end of EU development money and the fall in the value of the pound, as well as the slow squeeze on unrestricted funding – the money NGOs receive that they can spend on such things as research and policy-making, rather than specific projects approved by their donors.

While it’s certainly true that many of the same political and media voices that backed leaving the EU are also ones that have been vocal in their criticism of protecting the aid budget at a time of austerity, the initial signs are the new Prime Minister was listening to her predecessor and not these siren voices.

In May’s reshaping of the government machine, several ministries have disappeared, but the Department for International Development has survived – a positive sign.

And although the new Secretary of State, Priti Patel, has expressed scepticism about the value of DfID in the past, when her predecessor, Justine Greening, was first appointed, there were reports she was less than keen on the idea of aid, yet she proved an effective minister.

The public mood that led to a majority voting to turn their backs on the EU doesn’t necessarily mean the majority of people in the UK want to turn their backs on the world.

After all, aid is not just the right thing to do for straightforward moral reasons.

When all is said and done, there is a hard-headed case for continuing David Cameron’s approach to aid and international development – and, irrespective of whether Britain is a member of the EU or not, this has not changed.

As Cameron argued when unveiling last year’s National Security and Defence Review, supporting development and good governance in the world’s poorest and most fragile countries also helps to ensure their stability and make it less likely they become havens and breeding grounds for terrorism or other threats to international peace.

In the long run moreover, well-managed international aid underpins efforts to lift people around the world out of poverty which means more potential customers for British exports.

It may sound paradoxical, but this hard-headed case for aid also encompasses the boost it gives to the UK’s soft power.

There is a growing consensus among British politicians that the country’s global influence derives from more than having the world’s fifth largest economy or one of its more capable militaries – it also derives from the admiration many people around the world have for the UK, its culture and the values it espouses .

Brits are generally seen as good global citizens.

The UK has been in the top two over recent years when global soft power is assessed – and Britain’s generosity as an international aid donor is widely seen as one of the keystones of that power.

2014’s House of Lords’ Soft Power Committee report recognised this and urged the government to build on DfID’s role in boosting the UK’s influence around the world.

Many prominent Brexiteers, including Ms Patel and the new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, argued ahead of the EU referendum that leaving the EU would allow the UK to become more outward looking and to forge a new global role for itself.

Humility is required, but Britain’s generous approach to international aid can be a pillar underpinning whatever new course the UK ends up taking in the world.

It wasn’t pressure from the EU that led the UK to achieve the 0.7% target – that was home-grown.

So, leaving the EU doesn’t have to mean a bleak future for Britain’s international aid.

Are we neglecting our soft power assets?

If foreign policy doesn’t feature in this election a global powerhouse risks losing its voice

In a piece for Real Clear World I argue that

The chances of Britain making it through to May 7 without facing at least one unexpected international event with serious implications for our national interests are slim indeed. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband should be planning to give over at least a day between now and polling to lay out how they intend to shape world events and not just react to them. Even if they remain unpersuaded that the electorate is hungry for answers now, it is difficult to see how they could claim a later mandate for tough decisions if they don’t hint at their direction of travel on ISIS, Russia, China, the Transatlantic relationship, Syria, reform of the European Union, and prospects for this year’s critical summits on sustainable development and climate change.

You can read the whole piece here and see all the other world election coverage they are gathering together here.

Beyond Aid: the future UK approach to development

Written evidence by Alex Evans and the Center for Global Development’s Owen Barder to the UK Parliament International Development Committee inquiry on the future of the Department for International Development and the ‘beyond aid’ agenda (September 2014).

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The future of DFID and the ‘beyond aid’ agenda

The UK Parliament’s Select Committee on International Development is running an interesting inquiry at the moment on the future of Britain’s Department for International Development, in particular in light of the ‘beyond aid’ agenda (terms of reference here). Owen Barder and I submitted a note to the inquiry last week, which you can download here.

We argue that if the world is serious about ‘getting to zero’ on poverty by 2030, then three key front lines for development will be fragile states (and parts of states), inclusive growth in middle income countries, and transboundary risks (especially those to do with unsustainable consumption patterns).

These three challenges have a lot in common. None of them was well covered in the MDGs; all will be crucial for eradicating the second half of poverty; all are about messy, long-term processes of structural change; none of them has an established playbook for how to address them; and while there are important roles for international spending in each case, none of them is primarily about aid.

Instead, we suggest, DFID will increasingly need to focus on beyond aid agendas both in country – where it will need to undertake significant changes to its existing skills profile – and across Whitehall, so as to influence UK policy on areas from arms sales, tax havens, drug prohibition policies, and anti-corruption, through to trade, subsidies, migration, financial regulation, and above all the global impact of British citizens’ consumption patterns.

We argue that in order for DFID to be able to influence this much broader range of policies, it is essential that it remain an independent Cabinet department, and not be re-merged back into the Foreign Office. (Doing that would just make a future Minister of State for Development within the Foreign Office comparable to the Administrator of USAID: running an aid programme, but excluded from most of the key decisions affecting development.)

But we also think that, since 2010, it is hard to make out much evidence of DFID playing this cross-Whitehall influencing role. Instead, it has focused mainly on securing and defending a substantial increase in the aid budget. This has potentially eroded the case for DFID to be a separate department – despite the fact that the Department’s voice is needed in Whitehall and internationally.

So, we conclude, policymakers and other influencers – in government, in Parliament, and in the wider policy community – should be pushing for DFID to play a bigger role in development policy. Conversely, the last thing they should be doing is caving in to the temptation to retreat to a less controversial space centred on aid administration.

Development Dilemmas

In our development dilemmas piece we consider what progressives should do now the split between foreign and development policy no longer exists:

Should aid be used as an instrument of foreign policy? If so, how? If not, why not? 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 paranoids versus the Pollyannas: what is driving Labour’s foreign policy?

The Fabian Society has a new pamphlet out this week which lays bare some of the big strategic fights underlying Labour’s emerging foreign policy. I’ve attempted to summarise them here.

Labour politics has taken an inwards-looking turn since 2010 but a new pamphlet, published by the Fabian Society this week, sees the party’s internationalists limbering up for a ruck with the opposition, the leadership and each other all at once. If the IPPR’s Influencing Tomorrow was a genteel debate in the officers’ mess, the Fabians’ collection is a squaddies’ bar room brawl between, in Mark Leonard’s words, “the New Labour tribes of globalisers, liberal interventionists and pro-Europeans and the Blue Labour apostles of localism and disengagement”.