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What's next in international development? Political Perspectives 1: Gareth Thomas MP

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Gareth Thomas MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development


Rt Hon John Battle MP, Chair, APGOOD

John Battle MP welcomed Gareth Thomas MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development. He noted that the three June meetings in the What’s Next? series (with Andrew Mitchell MP on 7 June and Lynne Featherstone MP on 14 June) would complete this long-running series which had tended to be ahead of the agenda.

Gareth Thomas MP
thanked the chair for his introduction. He explained that his speech would reflect on five topics:

  1. the ‘narrative’ on international development; 
  2. working with Governments;
  3. the challenge of population growth;
  4. the UN and Europe; and
  5. some partisan thoughts.

On the question of the narrative on international development, there was a clear sense in which the current narrative still had great force: there was a strong moral case for work on Africa, on climate change and on the wider MDGs. The message continued to have resonance. Public support was strong, though shallow.

However, ten years on from the formation of DFID, it could be seen that there were new challenges. These included the impact of globalization, new environmental challenges, and a new agenda related to conflict and terrorism. These were international issues, but also ones with a strong domestic link. This could focus on cases such as heroin exports from Afghanistan to Europe, opening up European markets to developing county imports (and so cheaper food), and rainforests as carbon sinks.

On working with Governments, Gareth Thomas argued that if donors were to help achieve goals for large-scale reduction in poverty, there was no alternative to working with Governments. Many NGOs did excellent work, for example on HIV/AIDS. They were able to innovate and set Government a good example. But there were risks that they would undermine Government, for example by paying higher wages. Only Governments could deliver to all those in need.

On population, the numbers were startling. India would have an extra 500 million people by 2050. The population of the West Bank and Gaza would double. In the world as a whole, more than 50 million new jobs a year would need to be created. The impact on the environment would be significant. All this needed international debate.

With regard to the UN and Europe, the main message was that we should expect more of these institutions. There was also a need to be more forward focused and to exploit new opportunities. There were frustrations in working with so many partners; however the convening power these bodies provide is hugely important. The UK needed to be behind the ongoing reform.

On the politics of international development, Gareth Thomas suggested that the Conservatives supported the work of small NGOs but were uncomfortable with the necessary role of Government. He said that they seemed uncomfortable with the high profile of development. He questioned whether they would retain the legislation in this area, whether there would be a Secretary of State for International Development under a Conservative Government and how well they would work with international institutions and developing country Governments. He also questioned whether the Liberal democrats had a coherent critique or a voice that was independent of NGOs and whether they took development seriously given how often the spokesperson changed.


Questions and points raised in the discussion included:

  • A Conservative representative emphasised his party’s commitment to international development and said they were committed to retaining DFID as a separate Department with a seat in the Cabinet. The Party was also committed to reaching 0.7% by 2013, the same timetable as the Government.
  • Over the past 5 years, public concern for Africa has increased, as has spending on development, but this has not been matched by results. Why is this and what should we be doing differently? What do we know about how to reduce poverty, both in the UK and Asia, that we could transfer? Gareth Thomas replied saying that he was optimistic about development in Africa because more people than at any point before in the last 50 years are being lifted out of poverty. In Southern Africa, there is progress despite the situation in Zimbabwe, and in the rest of the continent too, despite trouble-spots such as Darfur, which tend to get the most news coverage.
  • The Conservatives are generally more in favour of supporting small developing country NGOs over developing country governments. What can we do to make developing country governments more effective? Gareth Thomas replied that good developing results tend to be more quickly forthcoming when national governments receive support from donors. Local NGOs do good work but governments and good governance must be supported. Money channelled through NGOs won’t necessarily help to iron out imperfections in developing country governments.
  • With the G8 Gleneagles commitments and the UK more or less delivering on its promises, talking about ideology and the narrative of development is important. Are the MDGs still the right guiding principle? How can the new issues of China, the environment and development and security be included, and what might the ‘strapline’ be to sell this new agenda? Gareth replied that he wasn’t sure what the strapline should be – this should be the subject of debate. NGOs still have a role to play in getting governments to support development, and in the setting of new, internationally-agreed targets. MPs also must articulate better to their constituents why development matters.
  • Development is very complex with new topics flooding in all the time. To handle these effectively, there is a need for structure and a more effective mechanism for development management. Who runs the current system and how can we make it more effective? Gareth replied that the system is not perfect, but it definitely works best where national governments are supported. The UN and other organisations need reform too.
  • There is a distinct lack of a welfare system in the developing world. What is the role of governments and donors in that? Gareth Thomas replied that he saw a definite role for social protection in this regard. In Brazil, South Africa, Zambia and Malawi, for example, there are new and effective systems of social protection which donors are interested in funding. This type of cash payment is more effective than longer-term food aid, for example.
  • Refocusing the lens on the issue of population growth is a good idea as people are living longer (the result of successful development) and this will bring with it many different policy challenges to those we currently face.
  • Climate change needs more detailed discussion, especially what impact it will have on both current and future development work. What is DFID doing with regard to climate change, both in the UK and in terms of the G8, especially given President Bush’s recent statement? Gareth Thomas replied that he did not envisage a parallel process to the current UN process and that we should be positive about President Bush’s recent statement. The Prime Minister and Angela Merkel are already pushing this agenda hard in the run up to the G8. DFID does need to reflect more on the impact of climate change on its development work. They are currently hiring more staff to deal with this issue and they will be working on a series of events to roll out expertise.
  • How will population growth impact upon migration? Gareth Thomas replied that he envisaged migration levels to rise, but the direction in which people will move, and the reasons for moving are unclear. This will probably depend on the job situation.
  • What contribution can the private sector make to improving development results? Gareth Thomas replied that the role of the private sector is very important and that DFID needs to do more work so that the conditions for private investment can flourish in developing countries. Access to finance and microfinance for SMEs and microfinance also needs to be improved
  • What about the sustainability of these success stories? Is it Ok for the West to permanently prop up other countries? Don’t we need an exit strategy? Gareth Thomas replied, saying that we sometimes don’t have a choice but to prop up some failing countries, for example, Afghanistan. If we didn’t prop that up, it would be claimed back by the Taleban, so it is in both our and the country’s interest for us to be there.
  • Is China marginalising/undoing the good work already achieved in Africa? Gareth Thomas replied by saying that China is not the only new player, though it is the biggest. There are other new donors, new health funds, etc. We need to try to convince them all that to support developing country governments.
  • What is DFID’s view on conditionality? If donors are funding governments, where does the accountability for the people lie - to the donors, or to the governments themselves? Gareth Thomas replied that DFID does not impose economic conditions on recipient governments, however they do want human rights to be respected, they do want their funds to be used for the reduction of poverty and they do want financial systems in place so that corruption is avoided. If these conditions are met, budget support will be provided. Even in cases where these conditions cannot all be guaranteed, non-economic aid, in the form of advice and consultancy can be provided.
  • If a new development narrative is needed, what about the demands of the old narrative which have not yet been met? Is the next narrative self-interested? If so, what will be the long-term effect of that? What drives the public to support development? There was no mention of rights in the speech – where do they sit within the new narrative? On the new narrative, Gareth Thomas responded that he didn’t intend his vision to address all angles and arguments. There is definitely a case for rights to be part of the new narrative. We are not moving away from the moral case for development. We need to recognise that the support for development demonstrated in 2005 and since is more than there has ever been over the last 20 years, and in order to sustain it, we need to prove that development is working and that it has an impact on individuals in the UK (the self-interested case).

In conclusion, John Battle summarised the discussion, reflecting on the heavily contested nature of the statement: ‘Refreshing the narrative of welfare provision in a global market economy.’ He stated that it is the fusion of the global and the local that will, in the end, carry this new agenda forward.


2005 was heralded as a historic year for international development and an unrivalled opportunity for the UK government to provide leadership at the G8 summit at Gleneagles, through the UK Presidency of the EU, at the MDGs Summit in New York and at the WTO Hong Kong Ministerial.

What was achieved? How can the momentum be sustained and what are the major issues and challenges that lie ahead?

This event is part of a series where key people in political world investigate how the momentum gained in 2005 for international development can be sustained. In this event, Gareth Thomas MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, offers his perspective.

Wilson Room