International development must be about economic justice, not charity or self-interest
An incredibly important report was issued last week by the ODI and IPPR. It examined in much greater depth than usual what people think about overseas aid or international development, and it found that people who are not already committed for or against aid are put off both by charitable guilt-tripping and appeals to naked self-interest and management by numbers. They also think that big business needs to play its part in solving global poverty.
This is a big challenge to the current Government and also to the big charities like Oxfam and Save the Children. And it’s almost exactly what unions and progressive development organisations like Jubilee Debt Campaign and Stamp Out Poverty have been arguing. It should also give Labour’s Shadow International Development Secretary Ivan Lewis considerable comfort, because he too has been arguing a similar line.
The report talked to carefully chosen samples of the Great British public (but not those whose minds are already made up) and it reveals a lot of really rich detail – and some great quotes, too! But the main argument it makes is that people are persuaded by neither the pictures of starving black babies that litter NGO fund-raising appeals, nor Andrew Mitchell’s new DFID agenda which insists that if you can’t quantify the results of aid it’s worthless, or that aid is only worthwhile if it benefits the UK directly (by preventing terrorism or increasing trade).
No, what people want to see is a narrative that emphasises the successful transformations that development produces in formerly poor countries, and that stresses the moral issues of fairness and economic justice (addressing tax dodging is specifically mentioned).
Charities need to swiftly re-examine their crumbling campaign – provisionally titled ‘food and hunger’ – which some have called Make Poverty History II. Although some of the demands are sound (challenging tax havens, demanding legislation on overseas aid volumes), the overall tone of the campaign could set international development back decades by focusing on people in the global south as powerless and voiceless (not least by failing to consult those people in campaign planning) victims.
I actually doubt you could ever run a popular campaign on hunger in the global south without either using images of starving children (which is why ONE walked, and which I think is a form of development porn, and certainly a morally questionable use of vulnerable people) or playing into such stereotypes on a sub-conscious level (ie people will frame the campaign in such terms, regardless of the actual campaign materials).
The Government also needs to re-think its strategy. The most charitable (see what I did there?) explanation of Andrew Mitchell’s insistence on being able to identify what every British aid pound ‘buys’ in the global south is that he is trying to persuade tax payers that their money is not being wasted. The ODI/IPPR research suggests this battle can’t be won. People want more than a transactional aid programme, they want our money to transform people’s lives. However, Mitchell’s approach would be more in line with the Coalition’s values if it was designed to change DFID from a development department into a state-funded charity – and one that even turns a profit in arms deals!
Mitchell is also pouring increasing amounts of money into private sector development, too. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong in this (indeed, we’ve welcomed the reforms he wrought at CDC and unions globally are in favour of private sector development as long as it doesn’t undermine public goods like education, health services, water and sanitation). And the private sector is vitally important to trade, adding value and growth. But the ODI/IPPR study shows the British public want responsible capitalism, not dodging taxes, not undermining workers’ living standards, and behaving ethically. They are exactly in tune with the UN Ruggie Principles on business ethics, and DFID needs to be too.
So, full marks to ODI and IPPR for fleshing out what the public thinks about development. They are, as so often, more progressive than they are given credit for being.