From the TUC

Progressive development: solidarity not charity

10 Feb 2013, by in International

I spoke this morning at the University of Newcastle’s excellent International Development Conference (#IDC2013) about Progressive Development. Below is an edited version of my remarks, but my main argument was that changes in the global economy were making traditional approaches to development – which portray the economic issues facing emerging and developing countries as qualitatively different from those facing industrialised nations – less relevant. I argued for a paradigm of development based more on solidarity and common approaches to inequality, tax justice and so on.

The speaker before me, star DFID blogger Hannah Ryder, painted a similar picture of a changing global development agenda, although her presentation was much better supported by data!

Progressive development

I want to set out three arguments that I think should lead us away from the traditional, charitable aspects of international development towards a more radical, progressive development which has as much to say about what’s happening in the industrialised as the emerging and less developed economies.

1. Development isn’t different

It’s often said that the past is another country, and that’s an important issue in international development. In the 1930s, my uncle and aunt were domestic workers; my grandad was a street vendor. Both occupations are key elements of the informal employment that characterises so many poor communities in the global south.

But of course they were in Plymouth and Cardiff, and within a decade they were all in regular employment, with pensions, a National Health Service, and a home of their own. They were also paying income tax, which was a major change.

Seemingly intractable poverty can actually be overcome remarkably quickly. Even in Europe, we only made poverty history recently, and it may be on the way back.

What I take from this is that the challenges of international development are not so different from the challenges we face in our own country.

This morning’s Action Aid report about tax dodging by Associated British Foods in Zambia is not so different from last year’s domestic scandals about Amazon, Google and Starbucks. Tax justice is a global agenda, not specifically a northern or southern problem.

Another example is Oxfam, founded 75 years ago to mount famine relief programmes not in Africa but in Greece. We may even have come full circle with the expansion of food banks even in Britain.

When Make Poverty History was launched in the UK in 2005, it was about poverty in developing countries. But others did it differently. Make Poverty History Canada addressed domestic poverty as well.

2. Solidarity isn’t charity

I don’t agree with those who say that overseas aid is a bad thing, encouraging dependency. I see it more as a form of economic transfer payment like unemployment benefit. State expenditure has been vital to the economic development of industrialised countries and spending on education, health and infrastructure is as vital in developing countries as it is in the north.

But at the same time, unemployment benefit is only a sticking plaster to get people through the bad times, until economic growth returns. So I’m pleased to see politicians starting to talk about ending aid in our lifetimes.

China, for example, is the major success story in reducing the number of people in absolute poverty, and that’s been achieved through a mixture of economic growth and welfare safety nets, rather than external aid.

But what I particularly take from the Chinese model is that, primarily, you cannot eradicate poverty from outside: the people who will overcome poverty are the poor themselves, and our role is to support them in that rather than take over and do it for them.

We can certainly stop making things more difficult – for example by ensuring that multinational corporations don’t dodge their taxes, and adhere to international labour standards.

And we should certainly stop portraying people in poverty as powerless victims: the ‘starving black baby’ pictures that open people’s purse strings, but don’t challenge the fundamental causes of poverty here or abroad.

Indeed, we should take our lead from those who are demanding change, rathe than imposing our own model on them. That’s frankly the TUC’s main concern – among rather too many to be comfortable with – about this year’s ‘Enough IF’ campaign, which was developed without any southern leadership or even input at the planning stage.

3. We need a new model of development

So, the concluding point I would make is that we need a model of development campaigning that addresses issues that affect people across the globe: tackling inequality between and within countries, reconciling economic growth with environmental sustainability and social justice, that says saving a hospital in Lewisham is as important as opening one in Luanda.

Tax justice is easily the clearest example of this, but precarious employment and informalisation is a challenge in the USA and Southern Europe just as it is in Ghana and Nigeria. Violence against women is an issue affecting the UK with cuts to police domestic violence units and Women’s Refuges, even if South Africa, India and the DRC present more alarming news.

So we need development initiatives that span the G20 and the G77, campaigns that are led by southern as well as northern voices. Inequality has been thrust into the forefront in industrialised countries, and in particular the shift in extreme poverty from poor countries to middle income countries.

These are the issues that will condition the post-2015 agenda, rather than the largely technical issues of the MDGs.

And this is especially important in conditions of economic hardship in the industrialised world when the pressure on politicians and on civil society generally is to focus inwards. Because charity isn’t enough to change the world.