Labour Shadow Secretary for International Development Ivan Lewis made an important and very welcome speech on international development last night, about what we should be aiming for once the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in 2015. It was heavily covered on twitter (that explains why so many in the audience were in hunched-over-typing mode, including me!) but it is worth a deeper look, as it sets out a far more strategic vision than his similarly good Party conference speech. The core of his message was that:
“The new framework needs to be values led, rooted in social justice including reducing inequality, sustainable growth and good governance practiced by all development actors. Our overarching aims should be clear and measurable. By 2030 to have eliminated absolute poverty, begun to reduce inequality, protected scarce planetary resources and ended aid dependency. Ending aid dependency is the right objective for greater equality and the dignity, independence and self determination of nations and their citizens. It should be a core part of the mission of Centre left development policy.”
He called his approach a new ‘social contract without borders’ to replace the existing MDGs and the speech is full of commitment to decent work, more jobs, better wages and what is essentially a welfare state approach (eg education, health and sewerage) to international development. He was even good enough to mention the Robin Hood Tax as one of the innovative possible sources of funding.
This new social contract is
“rooted in three key principles:
social justice including an explicit commitment to tackling inequality and promoting human rights;
economic growth and wealth creation without which we cannot deliver social justice, but growth which must be sustainable and benefit the many not the few; and
good governance, applied equally to all: Governments, whether recipients or donors, multilateral organisations and multinational companies.”
Throughout the speech, he returned again and again to the issues of jobs and tackling inequality, and an international development policy centred on those two themes would I think be both popular domestically and effective abroad. It would be a good summary of a decent social democratic policy for the UK as well, and he and his shadow ministerial colleagues stressed that much of what they were calling for internationally was similar to what Labour is in favour of domestically.
As well as his support for decent work and living wages, he had relatively sharp words for business, calling for ‘responsible capitalism’. And, unusually for politicians these days, he was quite specific about what that meant. Companies that don’t abide by the principles of decent work and sustainable growth shouldn’t get DFID contracts, and all government procurement should be on that same basis.
Criticisms? Well, there were some quiet intakes of breath from the audience about his suggestion that we should end absolute poverty and end aid dependency by 2030. I’m with him on that (at least as a starting point for debate): if we’re going to set targets and outline visions, they should be challenging. How much absolute poverty would we be happy to see around the world by 2030? How much aid dependency would we be happy with? But there’s a further reason for espousing those objectives – securing public support for international development does require that we hold out the hope that it isn’t forever; and winning commitment from the people international development is supposed to benefit is also important, and unlikely if they are offered a half-hearted objective.
Where I was less convinced was the amount of detail in what is, after all, not a draft DFID corporate plan 2015-2030, but an argument about what sort of objectives the global community should set for itself. I worry that too much detail just looks like a shopping list, designed to offer something for everyone, but failing to build a progressive consensus on the whole strategic vision. Building alliances is more than just adding together a series of disconnected interests, it requires an overarching theme that everyone supports. I do think Ivan Lewis is succeeding in setting out such an approach, but think he should be more confident in emphasising the strategic vision, with examples of the policies it would produce, rather than the full list.