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Labour take their populist vision international

by Daniel Stanley
Apr 8, 2018
Kate Osamor

Labour propose a radical new direction for ‘Development’ - can it work in practice?

Whatever your view on the detail of the Labour party’s new International Development policy paper, it would be hard to argue that it doesn’t represent a genuinely radical alternative to the status quo. Launched this Monday in an event at Portcullis House, A World for the Many’ outlines no less than 34 separate practical steps that will be taken to overhaul the way that Britain does ‘development’.

The language is bold and ambitious, translating the sweeping change of direction that Labour has applied under Jeremy Corbyn from the domestic scene to the international.

Amidst a ‘global crisis’, we are told, now is the time to build a ‘fundamentally fairer’ world, by addressing the root causes of poverty, climate change, and inequality.

The second of these represents a radical break from recent development policy, which has eschewed differences in wealth and income as a direct target, concentrating instead on any economic growth - with a few environmental caveats - as the primary method of addressing poverty.

This would decisively change under a new Labour government, with reducing inequality being elevated to a joint main objective of the department as a whole, alongside poverty reduction.

The need for a new direction

Certainly the Department for International Development - or more specifically its role - is in certain need of an overhaul.

Even before the revelations of misbehaviour in large charities had brought negative focus on the aid and development sector, the Department for International Development has suffered from a slow drift and loss of direction over recent years.

As in so many issues, the change of government personnel following the Brexit referendum brought a sharp rightwards turn in leadership, with Priti Patel’s tenure coming to a spectacular if unlamented end last year, with some ill-advised (and unauthorised) maneuvering outside her remit.

As Kate Osamor MP pointed out, Patel’s specific attempt to have part of the aid budget diverted to the Israeli army may have failed, but the aid budget itself has been repeatedly raided by other departments in recent years, for a range of projects with, at best, a tenuous connection to development goals.

This is partly a result of the mismatch between the 0.7% of GDP committed in law to aid budgets by the Cameron-led Conservative party, and a new leadership that shares little of his enthusiasm for the Department and its work.

But it is also indicative of a general malaise that has affected DfID for many years, one example being the scandals over the management and status of the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC).

A spin off of the aid department, CDC is a fund managing billions of aid money, but has been accused of investing mainly in commercial projects like shopping malls and mines, with debatable development value. Like the much-vaunted Behavioural Insights Unit, it was also controversially part privatised to its employees at a questionable price.

In contrast, Osamor and Labour promise to ‘restore the moral purpose’ of the Department, including

— Tripling funding for grassroots women’s groups, as part of the first explicitly feminist international development policy

— Ending investment in PFI and fossil fuels

— Developing alternative measures of wellbeing, alongside economic growth

All admirable intentions, and there are many more besides - a product of Osamor’s detailed consultation process, including 55 written submissions, 18 interviews, all led by a task force of 12 experienced development professionals.

Now for the hard part

One criticism of recent Labour domestic policy has been that for all the bold policy proposals outlined in their manifesto, few may be practically possible in the context of an British economy suffering from the effects of Brexit, and particularly exclusion from the Customs Union and Single Market.

And while the effect of Brexit on aid budgets is still to be determined, a similar argument can be made that some of the bolder ambitions in this paper may suffer when the work of implementation in the real world starts.

International politics is of course an inherently tricky and conflicted space, with multiple actors in play, and where compromise and negotiation often are the rules of the game, over straightforward moral purpose.

For example, the paper combines its commitment to reducing inequality with a consistent theme throughout of ‘pushing power to people and communities’.

Such rhetoric is not new in the aid sector, which has long advocated more participative practices. But it suggests an immediate dilemma - what if the people who power is being pushed to don’t see reducing inequality as a priority? What if they have elected political leaders who may in fact see such an aim as a threat - or at least as potentially counterproductive?

Certainly when surveying the ‘developing world’ there are a number of countries who are recipients of aid money where the governing powers may not be in favour of efforts to reduce inequality, let alone explicitly feminist projects or other value-driven activity.

Working out where and when to apply political pressure in support of such objectives will be a fraught process, subject to the whims and forces of national politics in each case, and likely needing to involve other parts of government.

It also touches deeper questions about development work as a whole - one more immediate practical concern, and an wider ethical consideration.

What role for Britain?

The practical question is an obvious one in the light of a potentially diminished presence on the world stage after Brexit - does Britain really have the status, the influence, or indeed the resources to expect to be able to genuinely shift global economic trends such as inequality?

The simple answer is - more than you might think. Whatever its international status, historic reasons mean the UK is the headquarters of many of the largest global aid charities, giving it an outsized influence on the international development sector.

But those same historical roots raise a moral question about Britain’s role in all of this. Osamor and much of the Labour front bench are steeped in the tradition of anti-colonial politics, and their instincts will very much be on the side of developing countries having independence and agency in how they involve themselves in aid programmes. As they’ve be well aware, the structure of global ‘development’ - and some would say its very definition - is intimately tied into the Imperial history from which it was born.

So the question is, when there comes a point when the objectives of Britain’s development programme, such as reducing inequality, come into conflict with local democratic politics, on which side will they come down? And what about other overarching principles of human rights and free speech?

This is no theoretical question in an age where some of the most impressive ‘development’ achievements of recent years have come in places like China and Rwanda whose governments would likely not agree with Labour on many of these principles.

Deciding when ‘Britain knows best’ is an inherently loaded question.

A good start

To be fair, these sort of questions are an inherent part of doing development, and can be asked of any project that attempts to correct some of the imbalances and injustices in the world.

As the party of opposition it is Labour’s natural role to provide the more idealistic alternatives that can drive policy in a different direction.

Given the volatility of current political environment though, the opportunity to implement may come sooner than expected - and its important thought is given now to how lofty principles might be adapted in the messy realities of an increasingly multipolar world.

One clear tendency in this report - as in much of Labour’s recent rhetoric - has been to drift towards more populist language. Not just ‘a world for the many’, but criticism of ‘the aid industry’, identifying ‘global elites’ (rather than systems), as the root cause of problems, and complaints that ‘the game is rigged’.

Such language is seductive, opening up the prospect of tapping into the global upsurge on frustration and unrest, and diverting it into efforts to protect and support the disadvantaged, rather than blame and attack them.

But this approach brings risk - language is a difficult thing to control. While the critique here clearly comes from the Left-wing tradition where mainstream aid is seen as a panacea to more structural problems, when it overlaps with Right-wing attacks on development work, there is a danger that by seeking to propose something radically different, support for the current system may be undermined - and those who are part of it alienated.

Undoubtedly, a radical overhaul of how Britain does development is clearly needed, and this policy paper represents a bold and impressive step towards it. The challenge now is to take a hard look at the challenges of putting these principles into practice, while retaining the ethics at its core.

Dan Stanley co-founded Small Axe, a movement-building nonprofit, and currently leads Cohere Partners, a brand strategy consultancy that develops brands and communications for some of the biggest businesses and nonprofit organisations in the world.

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