Whither international development: regaining vital momentum or building on dangerous new ground?

By Jon Barnes

Britain’s role in the world has often been the subject of fierce Labour Party debate and the stakes are once again high in these tumultuous times.

The devastating global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into even sharper relief the existing problems of inequality and climate breakdown.The current Afghanistan debacle, with all the questions it has raised about military intervention and international aid, has dramatically reinforced the sense of UK and wider Western statecraft being in crisis and urgently in need of radical redefinition.

Whether discussions during this week’s Party Conference signal Labour can have answers remains to be seen. Today, Labour’s frontbenchers on foreign affairs, trade and international development address a set-piece “Stronger Together for Britain in the World” event chaired by Anneliese Dodds MP in charge of Labour’s overall policy review. The Party is starting to outline more formally the contours of its thinking on international affairs under Keir Starmer, and this week the relationship between post-Brexit international trade and workers’ rights will receive an airing, following shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry’s launch of a policy report on the matter at the TUC conference a fortnight ago.

The overall international policy development process, of course, is evolving amid smouldering tensions between detractors and supporters of Labour’s approach under former leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Afghanistan crisis has fuelled a further volley of statements and exchanges in the lead-up to Conference.

No less important in this fraught environment is The World Transformed festival being held independently alongside Conference, which will provide a platform for critical debate of the challenges and opportunities for UK internationalism, whether from within Labour or outside. US Senator Bernie Sanders and John McDonnell have TWT slots, as does Jeremy Corbyn who now leads the Peace and Justice Project launched this year to promote solidarity between struggles for change in the UK and globally. He will speak on the legacy of the ‘war on terror’ and the urgency of climate justice.

A disturbing uncertainty, of course, is the future of the UK’s commitment to international development. As my earlier piece for Labour Hub reported, it has been a disastrous year for the UK’s development sector, following Boris Johnson’s quick-fire merger of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) last September –  a move described by Christian Aid as an act of “political vandalism” – and then the brutally sudden reduction of the aid budget. The cuts took aid to well below the UN’s 0.7 per cent of national income spending target: a striking departure as the UK had become the first G7 country to meet the target and enshrine it (supposedly) in law in 2015.

In assessing where the international development community – and the Labour Party – now stands on international development and where it might go in the future, it’s worth looking at the recent trials and tribulations of the sector in the context of the wider political dynamics of the UK.

Johnson: in retreat or on the march?

In her pinned tweet, Preet Kaur Gill MP, Labour shadow international development secretary, criticised DfID’s abolition as an independent ministry as a needless mistake symptomatic of “a prime minister in retreat” on the world stage. She was right to do so. The aid cuts, imposed in the run up to June’s G7 summit chaired by the UK, represent a vast chasm between the government’s windy rhetoric of “Global Britain” and the reality of the Tories breaking their 2019 manifesto commitment to uphold 0.7 and inflicting harm on the world’s poor.

Perhaps criticism of this kind will cut through over time, given the move’s damage to the UK’s international reputation as a reliable trustworthy player. With the UK also hosting November’s crucial COP26 climate summit, for example, criticism has mounted of how the aid cuts have set a bad example, impairing the credibility of UK diplomacy to win international policy commitment and finance to tackle the climate crisis.

Seen from a brutal political rather than technocratic perspective, however, such criticisms also miss the point. Boris Johnson’s moves on development should be understood, not as an incompetent miscalculation, but as a deliberate act. Rather than being in retreat or losing his grip, this is a prime minister vying to be on the march and tightening his hold.

One immediate motivation for the assault, not to be underestimated in Johnson’s case as an opportunist populist, is his ‘culture war’ bet that, in the absence of a sufficiently robust counter-narrative, it will play well with ‘Red Wall’ constituencies supposedly hostile to aid spending and international development. Such voters, many swayed by over a decade of misleading austerity narrative of unaffordability and right-wing media stories of overseas waste when things are tough at home, are an important target for his efforts to shore up long emerging and newly won Tory support in these areas.

But his strategic calculation is far wider and more long-term. For it is hard not to see the DFID-FCO merger and aid cuts as a pincer movement to downgrade, if not permanently reverse, the overall thrust of the UK’s international aid policies over the last two decades. The latter have been centred – in principle, at least, since Labour’s 2002 International Development Act – on helping to tackle world poverty.

The unmistakable emphasis now, as highlighted by the Global Britain in a Competitive Age integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, is on subordinating ‘foreign aid’ resources and policies to Boris Johnson’s rightwards geo-economic and geo-political pretensions post-Brexit. The creation of the new FCDO also addresses the Foreign Office’s long territorial jealousy over the rising financial and political stature of the Labour-created DfID. Crucially significant in the review is its so-called ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific region amid escalating superpower rivalry with China, with this priority destined to squeeze support for sustainable development challenges in the poorer regions and countries of the Global South.

Indeed, the review’s plans for a major expansion of Britain’s security and defence capabilities, including an even more aggressive stance on nuclear weapon use, overshadow the document’s purported concern with addressing global challenges. In any case, Britain’s record is open to serious question on the issues invoked – they include climate change, biodiversity loss, health resilience, conflict and authoritarian threats to democracy and human rights and media freedom – and it has gone from bad to worse at home and abroad under Johnson.

A quiet drive to tame NGOs’ ambition

Besides courting the right of his party and the tabloid media, a side aim of Johnson’s manoeuvres, given the authoritarian instincts of his administration, is to tame any radical ambition on the part of the UK’s development NGOs. When at their rights and social justice best, important parts of this community, to a greater or lesser degree, have over the years come to challenge UK governments, not just on the level and purpose of aid but on an expanding range of the UK’s international policies affecting sustainable development. Think of the UK’s approach on arms sales, support for repressive regimes, business corruption and human rights violations overseas, corporate tax dodging and so on. Their endeavours offered the prospect of opening the UK’s global role to much more pluralistic scrutiny and influence, countering elite-driven and state-centric construction of the so-called ‘national interest’. 

Tory efforts to contain NGO influence, in response to the party’s right, predate Johnson of course, with the Con-Dem coalition government’s 2014 Lobbying Act, for instance, paving the way for more and more restrictions being placed since on UK civil society campaigning, including so-called ‘gagging’ clauses in contracts. In turn, the May government dealt a serious blow to the development NGO sector in 2017 by abolishing the Programme Partnership Agreement (PPA) scheme set up by Labour in the early 2000s. This provided flexible core organisational (rather than tied project) funding for scores of NGOs recognised for their strategic contribution to the UK’s overall development effort.

The PPA’s closure symbolised how a sort of informal political compact that had emerged between government and development NGOs was rapidly eroding. NGOs by then had in any case become increasingly seen by government as ‘service providers’ rather than independent equal partners worthy of support in their own right. As the situation continued to deteriorate under Theresa May, the BOND network bemoaned the lack of government interest in dialogue. Now, under Johnson, an even tougher financial and political environment faces NGO efforts to engage with government in line with progressive principles, let alone hold it to account.

Notwithstanding continued ambition within the sector, some observers argue that NGOs’ overall inclination in recent decades to seek art-of-the-possible change with government, rather than assertively contest the deficiencies of its approach in pursuit of a necessarily different policy agenda, led the sector to lose critical independence and become too close to those in power. This was arguably the overall strategy adopted during the New Labour years and sustained in response to David Cameron’s Blair-like advocacy of a ‘golden thread’ approach to development at the time of the UK-hosted G8 summit in 2013.

In this view, such an approach has now left highly professionalised NGOs with insufficiently strong roots among the wider UK public, despite instances of buoyant mass mobilisation of the kind shown by the 2005 Make Poverty History Campaign, vulnerable to Johnson’s demagogic attacks as the rightwards direction of political wind gained even greater force. The current (and, in some cases, existential) difficulties of NGOs, though unleashed by Johnson’s sudden aid cuts and already compounded by the Covid crisis, have been in the making for a long time.

Constructive engagement and rearguard action

In counterpoint to the assessment above, it can be argued that NGOs, confronted by forces they cannot ultimately control, have a responsibility to do their best to protect political space seen to have already been created if not wholly won.

Indeed, while the notion that a Scandinavian-style hegemonic consensus recognising international development as a now permanent feature of UK statecraft always looked shaky from 2010, given the venal pragmatism of the Tories, it was nevertheless the case that, until the fallout of Brexit gained toxic pace, the UK government did rebuff calls for DfID to be scrapped and aid slashed, avoiding the disciplines imposed on other areas of public life after the 2008 financial crisis. Leading softer Tories argued robustly then and since that aid, in benefiting people across the world, was also in the country’s interests as an extension of the UK’s so-called ‘soft power’, echoing the case that New Labour itself had long made.

The residual strength of such political investment explains why Johnson’s aid cuts this year, following disgruntlement at DfID’s 2020 closure, met such widespread opposition among public figures and leaders across the political spectrum, not least within Tory ranks with former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell’s near successful but ultimately doomed attempt to organise a rebellion. NGOs worked hard to support such rearguard defensive action, both through cross-party lobbying and earlier case-making supporting political pressure for the Johnson government to alter its approach.

An example of the latter was Oxfam’s cross-party and multi-sector 2020 report with the Foreign Policy Centre advocating post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ be based on foreign policy benchmarked for contribution to sustainable development. Its proposed ‘Global Britain’ test included measures such as curbing the damage of tax havens and public interest scrutiny of UK trade policy, suggesting constructive engagement across party lines can still have a critical edge.

As if to illustrate such a link in practice, for instance, Save the Children, historically considered one of the more cautious and conservative NGOs, has under recent leadership combined dialogue with government ministers on the humanitarian plight of Yemen with action condemning the UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, resumed, despite a separate legal challenge by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

Flying the flag for global development?

Engagement with Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ rhetoric, however, has been far from unproblematic. In the absence of a rigorously promoted alternative vision enjoying solid support at both political and public levels, it risks reinforcing the ideological intent of such discourse rather than challenging it. Indeed, Rebecca Long-Bailey’s left-tilt advocacy of “progressive patriotism” during her difficult Labour leadership bid, while contrasting with performative imagery of Keir Starmer’s flag-flying borne by the wind of focus groups, achieved little more than a brief flutter.

Further, amid the cross-party, multi-stakeholder defence of the UK’s development role from the threat of the hard right since Brexit and the 2019 general election, Global Britain discourse risks lending itself to efforts co-opting support for a new development settlement inclined towards views spanning the political centre-right. Relatively recently, Tory aid-cut rebel Andrew Mitchell spoke of the Conservatives out-competing Labour over the direction of the UK’s aid policy.

Worthy of discussion in considering this danger is the Gates Foundation-funded Coalition for Global Prosperity (CGP) founded by one-nation Conservative MP Theo Clarke (Jacob Rees-Mogg’s niece by marriage) and launched at an event addressed by David Cameron with faith, military, business and political leaders in 2018.

The CGP, directed by a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, is of clear Tory genesis and orientation. Its staff, board and advisory council contains former Tory government advisers and ministers and military, business and diplomatic figures. But its structures also include past and current workers for development NGOs – one a former senior adviser to Gordon Brown, another a former worker with Labour MPs Margaret Hodge and Emily Thornberry – as well as the official who led Tony Blair’s 2005 Commission for Africa. Also involved and lending support to the CGP is the New Labour-oriented Labour Campaign for International Development (LCID), set up in 2009 to sustain into the future the record of the Blair and Brown governments. Prior to the 2019 election campaign, Labour’s current and past shadow development secretaries Preet Kaur Gill and Mary Creagh joined forces with the CGP’s Theo Clarke at a UN event in New York in 2018.

Drawing on this eclectic mix, the CGP has sought to provide rallying point for ‘realistic’ advocacy to secure, within the tight confines of Johnson’s large-majority government, best-as-possible retention of the UK’s existing development involvement. It recently released an essay collection on the future of aid, with contributions ranging from the security and terrorism views of the right-wing Harold Jackson to coverage of tax justice issues by the South Centre, the Geneva-based developing country think tank.

The CGP’s strapline, matching the prominent display of Union Jacks and soldiers in humanitarian action on the organisation’s website, is ‘Britain as a Force for Good’ – a handy phrase which also litters the text of Johnson’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy (IR). Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy will explore its meaning at an ‘in conversation’ event being held by CGP at this week’s Labour’s conference.

This phrase does of course play to continued hopes and aspirations that Britain can indeed play a positive role in the world – building on the real gains that UK aid has hitherto indeed helped to achieve over recent decades – and civil servants probably worked behind the scenes to sustain at least some form of continuity with past investment, as reflected by the IR’s inclusion of the development-relevant issues listed earlier. But it also serves implicitly to mask and delegitimise critical inspection of the serious problems that overall UK statecraft has posed for people-centred development in practice.

Indeed, censoring dissent interrogating the UK’s past and current global role as incontestably beneficial is part of the Johnson government’s culture-war playbook, fusing nostalgic jingoism with its post-EU outlook questionably presented as heralding win-win gains for people at home and abroad through its outward engagement with the rest of the world.

Salvaged structures, return of DfID?

Following the defeat of the campaign to prevent the aid cuts, notwithstanding one NGO’s plans for a legal challenge, it remains to be seen not only how the development community will regroup. Similarly in question is whether and how the Labour Party, afflicted as it has been by an overall lack of policy clarity and internal factional divisions, can respond effectively to the current impasse and forge an effective strategy on development in the run-up to the next general election.

Not all was lost in the recent campaign. Cross-party pressure, aided by groups such LCID, succeeded in protecting Parliament’s international development committee (IDC) chaired by Labour’s Sarah Champion MP. Also salvaged as a continued source of accountability was the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, though ICAI has had its budget cut and is struggling to secure a framework agreement with the FCDO: yet another sign of the government’s hostility to scrutiny.

It is also welcome that Labour, despite the FCDO’s creation, has not mirrored the new structure and kept international development as a separate shadow portfolio. Whether this signals that the party would resurrect DfID – the LCID and the Labour Foreign Policy Group have called for a future Labour government to immediately reinstate both the department and 0.7 – remains to be seen.

Returning a champion ministry would doubtless face tough resistance from the traditional establishment ‘non-development’ wings of the FCDO and, as the newly merged entity gains its own institutional momentum, the not unlikely risk exists that the Party, in the light of its timid opposition over the last 18 months, could go with the flow. The Party’s pre-conference Stronger Together for Britain in the World statement, while pledging to restore 0.7, makes no reference to doing likewise with DfID.

Security restrictions

The period ahead will test how committed to sustainable development, reversing the trends set in motion by Johnson’s creative destruction, the Party is. Under Starmer, Labour has until now acted more like a constructive engagement advocacy group itself, seeking adjustments in government performance rather than setting out clearly what it believes in and arguing persuasively the case for its ideas.

Whether the international Stronger Together statement, along with Labour’s position on the integrated review, marks a shift in this regard is open to debate. At one level, the Party seems to have accepted the overall terms of the government’s IR as the political terrain on which it thinks it must work, as suggested by a recent online discussion in which a key emphasis of Labour’s Wayne David, the Labour MP coordinating development of Labour’s foreign policy, was on how the IR could be best implemented as a result of wider consultation.

Notable in Labour thinking is its heavy emphasis on defence and security, positioning itself amid worries of a new Cold War as a competitor with the Tories in identifying and dealing with Russia and China as perceived geo-political and geo-economic threats to Britain. Meanwhile, in supporting stronger support for defence, the Stronger Together statement, in criticising cuts to the army as the Tories funnel money to other security priorities, laments the prospect that “Britain may no longer be able to deploy Afghanistan-sized operations overseas”.

This is a tone-deaf complaint amid the chaos of recent British interventions. Even groups sympathetic to the new leadership have pointed out that the failures have severely dented public trust in official foreign policies and stressed the need for lessons to be recognised. Their calls for statecraft centred on conflict prevention and the promotion of ‘human security’, however, are overshadowed by the Stronger Together text’s ostensible attachment to ‘national security’ as traditionally conceived, with all its underlying geopolitical and militaristic biases.

Such overriding casing – the document references briefly the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals right at the end – throws into question the extent to which the overarching ambition of the SDGs, with their interconnected calls for national action and global cooperation to support people, peace and planet, will provide the core organising principles for any Labour foreign policy agenda.

This has always been a longstanding problem of course. Labour’s commitment to aid and UK leadership in the international development policy sphere has often uncomfortably sat in rather siloed fashion alongside the questionable thrust of its wider international endeavours. As well as support for the War on Terror, one remembers New Labour’s insistence on arms sales to Indonesia, despite the latter’ genocidal annexation of East Timor, for example, with even leading figures arguing that an ethical foreign policy, as invoked by Robin Cook in the early New Labour years, could not be squared with realpolitik. Tackling this problem of disconnection could be even more difficult in the nationalistic political climate shaped by Brexit.

Connecting the local with the global: signs of greater ambition?

Still, while Stronger Together in the World risks aping competitively Johnson’s macho Global Britain discourse, the phrase does lend itself to wider semantic interpretations, hopefully rehabilitating and invigorating progressive intent. Indeed, if the Party can adopt an alternative narrative, it could convey the idea that pro-development action abroad is vital to solving problems at home, an important message amid Party worries about public views of the UK’s connections with the outside world. The Covid crisis, for instance, has seen advocates of effective support for badly hit countries in the Global South point out that “no one is safe until everyone is safe” as part of their opposition to me-first national approaches to vaccines by the Global North.

In a positive move, Labour’s Emily Thornberry, Lisa Nandy and Preet Kaur Gill have joined forces across their trade, foreign affairs and development portfolios to put forward a 10-point plan for tackling the threat of profit-driven global “vaccine apartheid”. They have criticised the Johnson government’s efforts at the World Trade Organization to block a move by South Africa and India for the WTO to agree a temporary waiver of its intellectual property rules protecting the patents of pharmaceutical companies. Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown has backed the waiver and called for a summit to end Western hoarding of vaccines. Tackling the overall monopoly powers of big pharma, as called for by the People’s Vaccine Alliance and NGOs in the UK such as Global Justice Now, is a wider challenge, but these are positive signs of responsive action by Labour.

Labour’s moves to root more firmly the UK’s international role in local domestic realities and win support for it can also be detected on the economic front. Following Lisa Nandy’s attribution of disadvantaged communities’ grievances and economic insecurities in Britain to the impact of ‘globalisation’ over recent decades, Emily Thornberry’s just released policy paper on trade advocates “putting workers first” in both the UK and globally, in line with SDG8 on decent work and labour rights.

A question of rights: towards win-win ethical policies on trade?

Detailed analysis is not possible here, but the trade paper has some good things. They include commitments to protect public services in UK trade deals with other countries; to ensure that the design, negotiation and oversight of deals are open to a wide range of parties beyond business (including trade unions and affected parties in both the UK and overseas); and to reject the Johnson government’s embrace of the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism in trade and investment deals, recognising that companies have for decades used ISDS to sue governments across the world for regulating companies in the wider public interest.

Also welcome is the stress on upholding labour standards and human rights, with the paper vowing to revise the UK’s government’s 2021 Trade Act accordingly and to impose fines and targeted import bans on companies involved in forced and child labour. Public procurement tenders and awards will be used to favour socially responsible firms and suppliers committed to standards, with some in the NGO community welcoming, with some qualifications, the potential of procurement also to drive local development strategies in the UK.

At the same time, the paper could be far stronger and more ambitious on key issues. For example, there is no reason why due diligence laws and requirements promised to prevent forced labour and child labour in supply chains should not be extended to cover the full range of human rights risks of business activity overall, not just enterprises involved in the very worst practices. This would be in line with civil society calls, both in the UK and the EU, for binding human rights and environmental due diligence legislation on business conduct generally, requiring states and companies directly to prevent and remedy violations rather than relying, as the paper seems to suggest, on company audits largely seen to be ineffective in protecting rights-holders. Aid could be used to promote overseas business commitment to human rights.

Another major worry is the overall ‘Britain First’ feel of the paper, in the context of trade being part of the party’s emerging policy of “buying, making and selling more in Britain”. While the paper rightly highlights the problem of poor wages and conditions of workers overseas, it does not automatically flow that they (like migrants) are necessarily responsible, as the exporting companies they are part of access UK markets, for such problems affecting workers in Britain.

Progress begins at home

Indeed, many problems facing UK workers and communities are often home-grown ones. As well as restrictions on trade union rights and workers’ wages, they include a lack of assertive public policy by successive British governments, including Labour, to upgrade productive investment and skills so that the UK could adapt more beneficially to a new position in a global economy now it involves a wider set of competitive actors. After all, other countries need to develop (as the paper does acknowledge) as part of a fairer distribution of economic capacity and power in the world.

Instead, however, the UK economy has been driven by finance and the power of the City. As development NGOs and tax justice activists have pointed out, the City is at the heart of a UK-linked network of secrecy jurisdictions enabling tax dodging. This deprives both the UK of the money for public services and more balanced economic development and countries in the Global South of the finance they need to develop. Whether Labour, amid its policy worries about tax as it courts the business sector and Tory voters, has the appetite to address such problems is unclear.

Likewise, questions surround how Labour will square the Stronger Together statement’s commitment to the defence industry with its simultaneous reference to reforming the UK’s arms export regime to prevent supplies of equipment used for overseas repression. Emily Thornberry will remember herself how just under 100 Labour MPs failed to back her parliamentary motion calling for a moratorium on UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in view of their role in exacerbating the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Labour has a lot to do if its overall foreign policies, in the event of victory at the next election, are to be up to job of supporting the SDGs as the clock ticks down for their achievement by 2030. The NGO community, in regaining momentum, will hopefully apply effective pressure and encouragement for this to happen.

Jon Barnes is a freelance writer, editor and researcher who has worked with several international development and human rights NGOs. He is author of A Record of Change in a Changing World, a history of the pioneering development NGO CIIR-Progressio, which closed in 2017 after 76 years of influential work for international peace and rights-based sustainable development. Follow him on Twitter @JonBarnes3

Image: “Supporting community clinics in rural Afghanistan” by DFID – UK Department for International Development is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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