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.

China – not yet a global power

China has been taking flak for its relatively small contribution to the international aid effort in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. It’s pledged about $1.7m so far compared to much larger amounts from the US, Japan and European countries. One possible explanation for this is the escalating dispute over maritime borders between Beijing and Manila, although the slow bureaucratic gears in China may also responsible. But if China wants to be seen as a global – or even regional – power, the argument goes, then it should be contributing more to global public goods, such as humanitarian aid.  But does China see itself as a global power and how do the Chinese view their integration into the global economy and their new-found international influence? Here’s a review I’ve written of leading sinologist, David Shambaugh’s latest book which unpacks Beijing’s impact on the world

Brazil – can she be everybody’s friend?

Brazil’s diplomats must be quietly pleased with their week’s work.

Last weekend, the country’s President, Dilma Rousseff, fresh from being named the world’s second most powerful woman (after Chancellor Merkel of Germany) by Forbes magazine, was one of the guests of honour at the 50th anniversary summit of the African Union in Ethiopia. A few days later she was playing host to the American Vice-President, Joe Biden, who confirmed Ms Rousseff has been invited to Washington on a state visit in October.

This one week in President Rousseff’s diary demonstrates something significant that has changed without much coverage in the western media – the unique role Brazil has been carving out for itself in world affairs. Brasilia sees itself as the emerging power  that’s uniquely placed to be the intermediary between the established powers in the global North and the global South.

So far, Brazil has played this role with some success in international trade talks and climate change negotiations, but has had less success persuading other countries to support its bid for a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council or its ill-fated attempt – along with Turkey – in 2010 to broker a deal between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

What lies behind this ambition? Continue reading

Tony Blair Saves Africa!

When I was young, naive and ignorant both of humanity’s complexity and my own limitations, I believed I would one day save the world. Once I reached adulthood, I thought, the willpower and abilities I possessed would be sufficient to wipe out poverty and put an end to conflict.

Then I grew up. I slowly realised that the world was not for saving, much less by one individual, and least of all by me. As I studied history, I realised too that the only people who still believed they could save the world having reached adulthood were dictators or madmen, and that their efforts always ended in failure.

It turns out, however, that I grew cynical too soon, and that in reality it is possible for one man to save the world, or at least a large part of it. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, believes that he has singlehandedly rescued Africa from poverty and underdevelopment. In an article on the Guardian website which must be either a push for a Nobel Prize or a pitch for a job at the UN or World Bank, he argues that all of the recent socio-economic improvements that have taken place in Africa resulted from his own focus on increasing international aid (he has nothing to say about the many African countries that have yet to see any improvement).

The beginning of Africa’s salvation, Blair claims, came at the Gleneagles G8 summit which Britain hosted in 2005. His role in the summit was crucial for Africa. As he reports:

Summits with genuine, long-lasting outcomes are rare. But as we started planning for the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005, I saw that it could be one of these rare ones – a summit about changing the world…

I decided to put Africa at the top of the agenda for Gleneagles…And it worked. Today, the positive legacy of that summit is still being felt across Africa: aid was doubled and developing world debt dropped.

Now an increase in aid is not, of course, an end in itself. Large quantities of aid given to Africa over the decades have been squandered on entrenching corrupt elites or padding the overseas bank accounts of dictators, with little impact on the quality of life of ordinary Africans. Gleneagles, however, not only increased the quantity of aid; it apparently dramatically increased its effectiveness. Here is Blair again:

I want to answer the aid sceptics – those who think aid doesn’t work or is all swallowed up in corruption. Look at the facts. In Africa since 2005, the rate of children dying before their fifth birthday has fallen by 18%. The proportion of people in Africa living in extreme poverty is down by nearly 10%.

It is undeniable that the latter two sentences are facts, but Blair offers no evidence that they have anything to do with an increase in aid. That they might have had more to do with increased investment in and trade with Africa by China, remittances and ideas sent from the diaspora, high commodity prices, or anything Africans living in Africa might have done is a possibility Blair is either unaware of or, because it does not fit with his messianic self-image, has no interest in highlighting. He even takes the credit for foreign investment. He writes:

Africa is among the fastest-growing regions in the world. The Gleneagles agreement can claim some credit for this; bilateral aid for trade to sub-Saharan Africa has almost doubled between 2005 and 2011. Foreign direct investment in the continent has increased by 87% in the past 10 years.

Again, no evidence is presented linking aid to fast growth – it is merely hoped that the juxtaposition of the two things will convince the unwary reader. Even Blair’s buddy Bob Geldof doesn’t have the chutzpah to attribute China’s growing influence in the continent to Gleneagles, admitting in an otherwise tub-thumping piece today (in which he refers to Africans as ‘the people you kept alive all those 30 years ago’ and to Africa’s success as ‘Blair’s lasting legacy’) that trade was not discussed at the Scottish summit. Blair, though, is in no doubt. ‘The last decade of development progress was defined by aid,’ he announces.

Blair does admit that despite his efforts Africa is not yet a utopia, and that improvements can still be made. Fortunately, he has the answers for these too. ‘After leaving office,’ he writes, ‘I set up the Africa Governance Initiative to continue my work on that forgotten half.’ The forgotten half refers to ‘the ability of governments in developing countries to get things done.’ In Blair’s world aid alone, or at least the aid he generated, has rescued Africa – the region’s governments have had nothing to do with it and like their people, who have thrived only since he decided to help them, can do little without his assistance.

Blair has one final piece of evidence, in case we remain unpersuaded that he is Africa’s saviour. ‘The very fact that people are still talking about Gleneagles eight years on shows that we were right to be ambitious, to change the debate.’ he writes. We will have to take his word for it that Gleneagles remains the talk of the town, and the argument that noise proves success is at least no flimsier than some of his other contentions. It’s certainly strong enough for the image-conscious Blair, who concludes his article by proclaiming that ‘the journey from Gleneagles to long-lasting development in Africa is not over [there was, it seems, no journey before the summit]. But Africa is on the move and if we keep going on the whole Gleneagles agenda…the continent will be transformed. So I’m proud to say that Gleneagles has turned out to be that rare thing – a summit that matters.’ If anywhere else in the world needs rescuing, they know who to call.

Was the Washington Consensus right?

Michael Clemens and co-authors have just won this year’s Royal Economic Society Prize for a paper on aid’s role in pushing economic growth (ungated version here). It turns out that contrary to previous findings that aid and growth are unrelated, if you allow plenty of time for their results to kick in, certain types of aid do have positive impacts.

With African economies by all accounts booming in the past few years, this got me wondering whether the widely criticised structural adjustment programmes that were imposed on Africa in the 1980s and 1990s in return for World Bank and IMF loans might also come out looking slightly rosier if a time lag were allowed for. With the continent’s recent rise attributed by many to the improvements in macroeconomic policies that structural adjustment aimed to trigger, it may be time for a new look at a policy that most development professionals have written off, and an interesting challenge, too, for economists wanting to win next year’s prize.

Communicating with the public on aid and development spending: we need a better story

The comprehensive Data report released today by the One campaign reveals that the flow of aid from Europe to developing countries fell by €700 million in 2011, the first such drop in almost a decade. The crisis in the Eurozone and the squeeze created by austerity measures are taking the blame for this, with Greece and Spain having – understandably – made the largest cuts in their development budgets.

So far, much of the commentary has concentrated on what this means for the EU in terms of its pledge to contribute 0.7% of national income towards achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.  Although the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands are on track to meet this target, many other European countries will have to stump up billions more in order to do so.  This is a tall order at a time when cuts in public spending are being made across the board.

However, new research from IPPR and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), also published today, suggests that this debate is missing the point somewhat.  Instead of focusing on ‘getting to 0.7%’, more attention needs to be paid to addressing declining levels of popular support for aid.

In February and March of this year, IPPR and ODI held a series of deliberative workshops around the UK: in London, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Evesham.  These sessions gave us a chance to have in-depth conversations with diverse groups of UK voters, both to hear their views on various aspects of the aid and development debate and to better understand the values and attitudes that underpin them.  The messages we took from these were mixed.

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