From the TUC

What would a progressive international development policy sound like?

14 May 2013, by in International

Labour’s Shadow International Development Secretary, Ivan Lewis MP, is giving a keynote speech later today setting out what he’d want to do if he replaced Justine Greening as Secretary of State after the next election. I’ll be tweeting as he gives it (@TUCGlobal – why not follow?) but I thought it might be a useful exercise to set out in advance what the TUC would like to hear him commit to:

  • global leadership;
  • structural change, not just sticking-plaster aid and peacekeeping;
  • putting people first, rather than concentrating on countries or political elites; and
  • decent work – simply, a world where the Rana Plaza factory disaster won’t happen again.

First, after the Chancellor’s lacklustre performance as Chair of the G7 Finance Ministers meeting this weekend, it would be nice to see Ivan promising that a Labour DFID would show some global leadership. Surely Osborne can’t be unaware of the irony of announcing that a meeting he chaired agreed that ‘something must be done’ on tax avoidance, but didn’t agree to do anything… I was in a meeting between civil society representatives and DFID officials last week where we pressed for the UK to take leadership in the G8 and G20 on the impact of tax on development, and we were told that it was up to the Chancellor. It makes me nostalgic for Gordon Brown’s years at No 11, when global financing for development was a big issue because of his personal commitment.

The debate over enshrining the UN target for overseas aid expenditure (0.7% of Gross National Income) is not just an accounting device or a development advocacy fetish. Although the reliability of aid volumes is absolutely central to their effective use, as many development experts have argued, the real importance of the legislation is that it would return the UK to a position of global leadership on international development. Not just the first G8 country to spend that much, but the first to make it law. Taking the moral, as well as fiscal, high ground. Although I’m sure Ivan will commit again to legislate when in office, I hope we’ll also see Labour press the issue in the Queen’s Speech debate, not least to flush out the Liberal Democrats on the issue, and demonstrate that there is already a Parliamentary majority for legislation.

Second, as part of the Progressive Development forum, I certainly don’t think that overseas aid volumes are the be-all and end-all of international development. I welcomed his announcement earlier this year that he wanted to see aid dependency ended by 2030. Tonight, I would like to see Ivan outline a different path from the ‘charity first’, ‘national interest’ approach of Andrew Mitchell and Justine Greening. I hope that structural change will feature heavily in Ivan’s speech.

That would mean a progressive approach to tax justice for developing countries; ethical trade rather than the sort of global free trade area the Government advocates (which would be just as unpalatable as the EU becoming a rights-free common market again); environmental sustainability, something that seems to have fallen off the Government’s development agenda at least as much as it has fallen down the domestic list of priorities; and, of course, responsible capitalism rather than a rehashed ‘markets know best’ scramble for what remains of Africa after centuries of western and now Chinese imperialism. Essentially, exactly what trade unions advocate for the UK and the EU – a rules-based, ethically-tested social dimension.

Third, we already know that Ivan will be revisiting his priorities for a post-2015 agenda, after the Millennium Development Goals expire. There are any number of ways he could approach this question, and while there’s a fervid debate going on in the sector, Ivan won’t become Secretary of State in time to have any formal influence over the outcome. So I think he should take every opportunity to reinforce that the purpose of global agreement on targets or commitments is to improve real people’s actual lives, not the overall statistics.

On the one hand, this means transcending the desire of most politicians to set numerical targets which then take over and dictate policy, and put quality at the heart of the post-2015 agenda. As teacher unions have argued consistently, and even the numbers-driven Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) found when examining DFID education spending in East Africa, that means children need a quality education, not just to spend time in a school room.

But on the other hand, the TUC has been arguing since the last Labour Government that development should be aimed at people, not countries or governments. Growth figures on their own don’t tell enough of a story about how ordinary people are affected, and the fact that a country has achieved wealth on average does not mean poverty has been eradicated. Ivan has grown fond of pointing out that in a world where most poor people live in middle income countries, it makes no sense to concentrate aid spending on the minority who live in the least developed countries. That conflict is at the heart of the current controversy over Justine Greening’s poorly-handled announcement that UK aid to South Africa was being ended.

The most difficult issue for the development community is how to address the inevitable conclusion of concentrating on poor people in middle income countries, which is inequality. After all, it’s not something we have solved in the developed economies, and over the last generation, it has become the political consensus to eschew the measures used in the post-war years to reduce that inequality: progressive taxation, social protection, greater state provision of services, and the growth of trade unionism and collective bargaining.

Which brings me to my final hope for Ivan’s speech (ok, I’ve saved my greatest hope for last) – decent work and the provision of a voice for working people. In his article after the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh, Ivan Lewis did stress the importance for people-centred development of those concepts – as several others have done. But it would be good to see this built into his overall vision of international development, along with an explicit role for trade unions and the International Labour Organisation, as well as a reiteration of the right-based approach to good governance, women’s empowerment and human rights.

It’s not a long wish list (I realise how many things I have left out), but it is still an ambitious one. Fingers crossed then….