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.

Ten thoughts on the UK Parliament vote on Syria

1. You can totally understand why the British public is where it’s at. Last time they heard about WMD from the JIC, it was the 45 minutes claim. They’ve also drawn pretty much the correct conclusions about the net effect of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

2. But it strikes me as crazy for Parliament to have ruled out all military action without having either all the facts or all the options in front of it.

3. For once I agree with Dan Hodges – Ed Miliband comes out of this looking terrible.

4. I also agree that this is a tipping point for British foreign policy. Maybe Suez / Iraq order of magnitude. Coupled with where the Tories are taking us on Europe, our approach seems be not to have alliances with anyone anymore.

5. That said, foreign policy people always obsess about influence for its own sake (being ‘in with the cool kids’), rather than on what we’re trying to achieve with it. Show me a concrete win we’ve secured on an issue that matters (climate, development, human security) that we’ve secured by being in the EU or having a ‘special relationship’ with the US.

6. I take the point that way more people have been killed with conventional weapons in this war than chemical weapons. But chemical weapons are different. Same way that landmines are too. Rory Stewart’s post on his blog this morning was good on this.

7. I can totally understand why many internationalist friends of mine are in a state of despair. I feel it too. We really are watching the last gasp of the idea of the Responsibility to Protect for the foreseeable future.

8. (For which we have Tony Blair to thank. Yeah – that guy who wants to bring democracy to the Middle East while applauding the coup in Egypt as a positive development.)

9. But what’s our theory of influence here? “Something must be done” as a response to humanitarian crises has rarely led to good outcomes – from Somalia in 91 onwards. No-one’s willing to consider boots on the ground (and it’s totally unclear that it would be helpful to peace anyway). I can’t see that missile strikes will achieve much beyond making us feel better, and they’re by no means risk-free either. I’m sceptical of all the people on Twitter saying we have to find a political solution (thanks, Einstein). I honestly don’t know what’s the right thing to do.

10. But ruling out all military action wasn’t it.

Labour and Uncle Sam

Should Britain expect more from the Special Relationship with the United States than managed decline? What price should progressives be willing to pay for influence? Latest in our #progressivedilemmas series on conundrums facing the next Labour government. 

Open Letter to the Co-Chairs of the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced on Wednesday that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and British Prime Minister David Cameron will head a high-level panel to advise on the post-2015 way forward. Here’s a memo from Alex and I on how the chairs can help ensure the Panel succeeds (pdf version here).


To:           Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, David Cameron

From:      Alex Evans and David Steven

Date:       10 May 2012

Subject:  The UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda

Congratulations on your appointment as co-chairs of the UN’s new High Level Panel of Eminent Persons to advise on the design of a framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. The Panel has a major opportunity to build a vision for global development over the next generation, at a time when most governments are primarily focused on much shorter term fire-fighting and crisis management.

Your task, however, will not be easy. The Panel will start work after the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) – an event that is likely to be a disappointment at best, and could yet prove an abject failure.

You will have to demonstrate that the Panel can avoid the many mistakes made in the run up to Rio. On the one hand, this means working patiently to rebuild consensus, at a point when the development agenda is showing signs of becoming dangerously polarised. On the other hand, you will also need to inject a sense of urgency into the process, if a new framework is to be in place in time for 2015.

In this memo, we set out eight steps that will help ensure the Panel asks the right questions in the right order, in a way that encourages your fellow leaders to move towards a clear and coherent strategy over the next couple of years.

  1. Beware the curse of the sequel. Most targets are quickly forgotten, but the MDGs have become a ‘universal language’ for international development. They will not be improved without creative thinking, a hard-headed approach, careful political management – and recognition of how much the world has changed since they were agreed. Many have badly underestimated how much work needs to be done. Your first job will be to jolt them out of this complacency.
  2. Focus on the poor first and foremost. Rio +20 will put Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on the international agenda – but the obstacles to such ambitious goals are substantial. Developing countries are right to worry that the poor would be the first casualties of a bitter, and possibly fruitless, fight to agree SDGs. You will need to reassure them by making it clear that you will make recommendations on poverty first – in an interim report – before moving on to consider broader goals.
  3. We have halved poverty. Now let’s end it. Poverty rates are falling at unprecedented rates – a success that you should celebrate – with fewer than 900 million people likely to be living on less than $1.25 a day in 2015, comfortably exceeding the MDGs’ headline target. This provides the world with an historic opportunity to set goals for ‘getting to zero’ on absolute poverty – achievement of which would be a truly epochal shift.
  4. ‘Getting to zero’ will radically change the development mission. Every success in the fight to end poverty makes the remaining task a little harder: the ‘last poor’ will be the hardest to reach. The Panel must challenge development organisations to explain how they will react as the ‘geography of poverty’ shifts to fragile states, or unstable regions of otherwise prosperous countries, where results will not come easily. It should also provide a platform to the g7+, a group which represents some of the world’s most fragile countries, to tell the international community what help they need to build societies able to deliver better lives to their citizens.
  5. But emphasise the opportunities too. Many African countries are beginning to surf a demographic wave, as growing numbers of young people enter the workforce and dependency ratios fall. During the global economic crisis, many of them maintained high growth even as the rest of the world slowed down. Their future looks hopeful – as long as they are connected to global markets, and as long as national institutions are strong enough to generate jobs, and support inclusive and sustainable growth.
  6. Rather than a grand design, aim for a loose family of SDGs. The Sustainable Energy for All initiative has shown the potential for sustainability goals to be developed by a disparate alliance of actors who have the will and the capacity to implement them. Instead of attempting to build a rigid SDG framework, you should explore the potential for building on this foundation, with different partnerships all bringing their own approach to achieving significant improvements in one or more aspects of sustainability.
  7. Provide space for innovation. The world is changing rapidly, but the international system moves at glacial pace. Provocative questions are needed to open up space for new thinking and approaches. What will a post-2015 framework do for the half of the world’s people who will be under 30 in 2015, for instance? What can be done to help the world’s towns and cities provide decent lives for a billion additional residents between 2015 and 2030? How will poverty reduction evolve in a world where we have the name, address and mobile phone number of growing numbers of poor families? And what types of partnership can deliver impact in a world where governments often hold only few of the cards?
  8. Get people arguing about concrete options as soon as possible. The international system is capable of debating vague generalities for the next two years, without ever bringing to the surface important areas of disagreement. Even if, as a Panel, you don’t find the definitive answer for what a post-2015 framework should look like, you will have made a huge contribution if you move quickly to define the choices the world faces, set out the benefits, costs, and risks of each option, and catalyse a genuine global debate.

The goal of ending absolute poverty is within reach for the first time. With skill and luck, you can prise open the space to begin building a new consensus on development that lasts for the long term. You will be at the forefront of helping the world seize these opportunities. We cannot imagine a more significant political legacy. We wish you luck in your endeavour.

After the MDGs – avoiding the curse of the sequel

As David Cameron prepares to chair the High Level Panel charged with designing a successor to the Millennium Development Goals, he should be in no doubt that he faces a tough job.

The original goals have been remarkably successful. Even in a single organisation, most targets are agreed and then quickly forgotten. The MDGs, which took a decade to stitch together, have prospered since their final agreement in 2002. Most developing country governments, and nearly all donors, have at least partially aligned policies to them.

Poverty rates have also dropped remarkably quickly (and not just in China) and progress towards social development targets seems now to be accelerating. How much of the good news can be directly attributed to the MDGs is hard to prove. But if you accept that goals can only ever be a part of the answer to a complex problem, then the British PM should start by asking why the MDGs did so well, not by assuming that his Panel is easily going to come up with something better.

His first question should be to ask what makes for an effective set of goals. I’d identify five criteria. They should:

  • Be resonant – powerful, simple and clear enough to communicate with politicians, media, public.
  • Form the main elements of a common strategic language, enabling different types of organisation to understand and work with each other.
  • Be amenable to implementation, not just on a technical level, but given likely political and resource constraints.
  • Have sufficient authority and clarity that it matters whether or not they are delivered fifteen years down the road.

Conversely, effective goals avoid:

  • Too much complexity – every interest group in the world will want ‘its’ target included and for technocrats more is usually more. Resisting a ‘Christmas Tree’ framework will require a willingness to pick tough political battles.
  • Straying into areas where consensus doesn’t exist – goals make countries more likely to do difficult things they believe are in their best interests; they can’t be used radically to change their identification of those interests.
  • Distorting incentives in a way that is significantly counterproductive. Goals will inevitably have at least some adverse consequences, but the detail and balance of the framework will determine how serious a problem this is, as will the quality of the data on results (to avoid cheating).
  • Making promises that aren’t really meant – some countries will be happy to sign up to goals they have no intention of doing anything to meet and it is possible to imagine leaders embracing a set of empty promises in 2015 just so they can have a big announcement to make.

So my advice to David Cameron would be to take three types of failure very seriously:

  • A failure to agree – lots of talk that leads, ultimately, to another multilateral car crash.
  • A framework to forget – we get agreement in 2015, but it’s largely ignored thereafter.
  • A strategic realignment to no great purpose – we get goals, try to implement them, but it doesn’t work out due to a lack of will or because the goals are the wrong ones.

None of this is to say that I think that, as Chair of the Panel, the PM has been handed (or worse, lobbied for) a poisoned chalice. Sequels are usually worse than the original, precisely because of the complacent assumption that the original’s success will easily be replicated. Cameron – and his team – need to make it clear from the beginning that they are intent on avoiding this error.

(This post is based on a talk I gave to a seminar recently at Brookings. Alex and I will publish a Brookings paper on the post-2015 challenge in the next few days.)

David Cameron to chair new UN Panel on what happens after the MDGs

News in the Guardian today:

David Cameron has been asked by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to chair a new UN committee tasked with establishing a new set of UN millennium development goals to follow the present goals, which expire in 2015.

Some initial reactions:

– It’s a major political coup for the UK, and especially of course for DFID, who’ve been working behind the scenes to secure this outcome for months.  (The UK may not have been supposed to announce the appointment just yet – there’s nothing on the appointment in the last briefing of the Secretary-General’s spokesman – but you can see why they couldn’t wait…)

– The immediate question now is who will be the other co-chair – or co-chairs. Two co-chairs is the norm for this kind of UN exercise, one from a developed and one from a developing country, but three co-chairs is not unheard of (e.g. the 2006 High-level Panel on System Coherence). If there were three, expect one to be from an emerging economy and one from a low income country.

– It’ll be safe to assume that the other co-chair[s] will be serving heads of government too. If I had to make a guess right now on people, I’d go for Dilma Rousseff from Brazil as the emerging economy candidate (especially as the Rio+20 summit in June is the launchpad for the Panel), and maybe Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia. Meles Zenawi would be another obvious choice, but he chaired a recent UN panel on climate finance so may be out of the running, plus the UN will want to have gender balance among the co-chairs.

– Another big question is who will head up the secretariat that supports the Panel. The recent trend has been for the secretariat head to come from within the UN: this was the case on both the Global Sustainability Panel last year (which I worked on), and the 2006 system coherence panel). But there’s also precedent from them to come from outside (Steve Stedman’s role on the 2004 panel on Threats, Challenges and Change being the obvious example).

– In terms of substance, the direction of the post-2015 agenda is currently heading towards the idea of Sustainable Development Goals. The Rio+20 summit will probably call for SDGs as a key summit outcome, but duck the issue of what those Goals should cover – passing the political heavy lifting straight to the Panel that David Cameron will be co-chairing.

– Expect the politics of this agenda to become very challenging and complex over the next 12-18 months. We did a backgrounder on SDGs a couple of months ago, which gives a quick overview; we’ll also be publishing a more up-to-date analysis paper through the Brookings Institution very shortly.

– On the domestic political aspects, Patrick Wintour’s analysis in the Guardian is undoubtedly right that this will firmly lock in the government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of national income on aid. At the same time, David Cameron’s chairmanship of the Panel will also allow him to argue to domestic audiences that he’s pushing internationally for a more hard-headed approach to aid – an argument that Conservative Home is already running with approvingly.

Update: if you’re wondering about how David Cameron sees the development agenda, take a look at this speech from last year.