What is a progressive foreign policy anyway?

Labour left office three years ago this month and may return to it just two years from now. That’s not a very long time in which to formulate a distinctive foreign policy for government, nor to game out responses to the massive shifts in the global strategic context in which the next Prime Minister will be operating.

To lend a hand, Labour think tank/ pressure group Progress have commissioned a series on progressive dilemmas in foreign policy, addressing the 12 big questions where the tensions between different left-of-centre first principles are most acute. Whatever your politics, we hope seeing how that debate plays out inside what could be the next governing party of Britain will be of interest.

Wow (updated x2)

UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening in a speech today:

“South Africa has made enormous progress over the past two decades, to the extent that it is now the region’s economic powerhouse and Britain’s biggest trading partner in Africa. We are proud of the work the UK has done in partnership with the South African government, helping the country’s transition from apartheid to a flourishing, growing democracy.

“I have agreed with my South African counterparts that South Africa is now in a position to fund its own development. It is right that our relationship changes to one of mutual co-operation and trade, one that is focused on delivering benefits for the people of Britain and South Africa as well as for Africa as a whole.”

Media release from South African Department for International Relations and Cooperation, a few hours later:

UK unilateral decision to terminate Official Development Aid to SA

The South African government has noted with regret the unilateral announcement by the government of the United Kingdom regarding the termination of the Official Development Aid to South Africa as from the year 2015.

This is such a major decision with far reaching implications on the projects that are currently running and it is tantamount to redefining our relationship.

Ordinarily, the UK government should have informed the government of South Africa through official diplomatic channels of their intentions and allowed for proper consultations to take place, and the modalities of the announcement agreed on. We have a SA/UK Bilateral Forum which is scheduled for some time this year and the review of the SA/UK strategy which includes the ODA, would take place there and decisions about how to move forward were expected to be discussed in that forum.

This unilateral announcement no doubt will affect how our bilateral relations going forward will be conducted.

What the hell happened?

Update: the Guardian has this from a DFID press officer:

Today’s announcement comes after months of discussions with the South African government. DfID ministers and senior officials have met with the South African government on many occasions to discuss our decision.

An observation: this looks like a retreat from the original wording of Greening’s speech: calling it “our decision” sounds rather different (read: unilateral) from Greening’s argument that she and her South African counterparts had “agreed” that SA was now in a position to fund its own development.

Update 2: Foreign Secretary William Hague has now entered the fray, intoning magisterially that “I am not going to fling accusations” while making clear – in the same sentence, no less – that the whole kerfuffle is the result of “bureaucratic confusion, perhaps on the South African side”. But here’s the key quote:

“We don’t continue to give aid to countries that are raising their incomes, that have growing economies.”

Surely this bold new doctrine rules out most – or possibly even all – of the countries that DFID spends money on? I love policy made up on the hoof. It’s always such fun.

Ending poverty – can it be done?

Global Dashboard, November 2011:

But let’s go back to the poverty MDG. In 1990, there were 1.8 billion poor people (in a world of 5.3bn people). If the IMF/Bank projections pan out, by 2015, there’ll be 882.7m poor people left (in a world of 7.3bn). That represents real progress in both relative and absolute terms.

Here’s a thought. In the debate about what should succeed the MDGs, one obvious option is simply to extend the current set of goals and focus harder on the challenges facing the 15% of the world’s population that will still be below the poverty line in 2015.

If poverty does indeed fall by a billion between 1990 and 2015, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t fall as fast over the next fifteen years, even as the global population grows by another billion. In other words, having halved absolute poverty, leaders could commit to abolishing it by 2030.

DFID’s most senior official, October 2012:

When they were first proposed in the 1990s, the MDGs were widely thought too ambitious and aspirational to be taken seriously. The pundits thought that halving the proportion of people living under a dollar a day, sending every child to school, reducing under-5 mortality by two thirds and maternal mortality by three quarters, all by 2015, was pie in the sky.

As we now know, the sceptics have been confounded…

So when my Prime Minister said in New York last month that the international community should aim to abolish extreme poverty within this generation, our generation, these were not just aspirational words. Abolishing extreme poverty within our lifetimes is absolutely within our grasp.

Three questions for development organisations now: (i) What exactly  have they contributed to poverty reduction or would change have been as rapid without them? (ii) What is their theory of change for helping the poorest people in the world’s toughest operating environments? (iii) How does that theory of change need to evolve given new realities (for example, that in many countries, we will have the name and address of every poor family)?

Do World Bank Country Classifications Hurt the Poor?

world bank country classifications

As the competition for president of the World Bank approaches its final stages, it is worth considering what changes ought to be brought in by the new person. One area in need of reform is the Bank’s system of country classifications. Although Robert Zoellick pushed the World Bank to open its much-prized treasure chest of data to the public during his five-year term as president, he did little to reform how the World Bank conceptualized that data. Changing how countries are classified would have a wide impact on the whole development community.

For instance, look at all the discussion in development policy circles about the sharp reduction in the number of low-income countries in recent years. Some believe this news should be trumpeted as a policy success. For others, the reduction suggests that there is a “New Bottom Billion” of poor people living in middle-income countries, forcing a change in donor focus. For yet another group, it indicates that foreign aid as a concept should be updated to blend more loans with grant money.

But has all that much changed? Does the World Bank country classifications accurately identify the countries in need of outside assistance? Continue reading

DFID and fragile states

For DFID – the heart of yesterday’s defence review was a new commitment to spend 30% of Britain’s development cash on “priority national security and fragile states”. This box explains what that means in cash terms…

Alex and I argued for this policy in our Chatham House paper. DFID, we wrote, should be turned into the world leader in tackling the problems of fragile states.

But there was a quid pro quo.  Fragile states need lots and lots of high-level expertise – not oodles of dosh. But DFID is probably going to be forced to make job cuts as a result of the spending review. So it’s going to have more money, tougher challenges to deal with, but fewer people. Something has to give.

The solution, we argued, was for the government to “make it clear that where a poor country’s main need is financial, the UK will not necessarily maintain a country office – but will instead reduce transaction costs by partnering with other effective donors, or simply channeling funds through multilateral institutions such as the World Bank.”

So far, the coalition has seemed fairly cool on the multilateral system – but if it wants to do a good job in fragile states, this has to change. Clearly, the FCO and MOD are hoping they will directly spend a big chunk of the UK’s development money, but DFID still needs to think hard about how best to deploy is scarcest resource – the expertise of its dwindling staff…