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Bringing global development closer to home

Written by Mark Miller


Last week, the Centre for Global Development launched the 17th edition of its Commitment to Development Index (CDI). When I first came across the CDI, it was a light-bulb moment: I had always suspected an unhealthy emphasis on aid as rich countries’ preeminent policy tool to address issues of under-development. Here was an index that showed the effects of a much wider set of policies on trade, technology and migration.

Seeing the CDI’s latest results, I felt a nagging discomfort. At the top of the table sits Sweden. There is much to admire about Swedish policy across a range of areas, including its generous overseas aid and approach to hosting refugees. But in recent weeks the Swedish government has been part of a ‘frugal four’ (subscription required) actively trying to block grants to countries in its own neighbourhood that have been worst affected by the coronavirus crisis. Does Sweden’s commitment to ‘development’ not extend to supporting unemployed young people in Italy and Spain?

At the other end of the table China made its debut in the index, coming in 35th of the 40 countries assessed. This looked harsh to me. For all the Chinese government’s imperfections, since 1980 850 million people have escaped extreme poverty. The government certainly appears committed to the development of its own people.

Whose development?

These results speak to the underlying logic of the index, which is deliberately designed to assess how policies in rich countries affect people in the world’s poorest countries. China is thus not scored on its commitment to the development of its own people, but on how it affects others. Sweden scores highly because it provides large transfers to the world’s poorest countries (where welfare gains are understood to be greatest), even while it refuses to stand in solidarity with its European neighbours.

In many ways, this is symptomatic of broader norms in international development. People working in the sector tend to care deeply about the wellbeing of the billions of people whose opportunities in life are severely limited through no fault of their own.

But development is often seen as happening elsewhere: in far-away ‘developing’ countries. It is typically about ‘them’, not ‘us’.

Overlooking how polices supportive of ‘development’ might affect people closer to home is a major blind-spot. In the US, President Donald Trump has argued (not on this occasion without evidence) that the country’s openness to trade has harmed the incomes of certain groups of blue-collar workers. In France, proposed rises in fuel duties were met with fierce protests by rural voters who felt they were being unfairly asked to pick up the bill for addressing climate change. Migration has increased opportunities and remittances, but trade unions have expressed concerns (PDF) about localised pressures on public services. In the UK, the government was criticised for increasing the aid budget, while cutting back spending on services and welfare payments at home.

Bringing development closer to home

These domestic and local concerns have been picked up by recent British governments. Then Prime Minister Theresa May criticised ‘citizens of nowhere’. Boris Johnson’s government wants to remake UK foreign policy so that it better advances the interests of the British people. In announcing the DFID-FCO merger last week, the Prime Minister argued that “this is exactly the moment when we must mobilise every one of our national assets, including our aid budget and expertise, to safeguard British interests and values overseas”.

Much of the UK’s development sector has reacted with dismay. Their concern relates to whether aligning policies on development to British interests and values may lessen the focus on poverty reduction. There is a sense that this will sully the ‘purity’ of the development endeavour. Yet certain ethicists would suggest that it is right and just to argue that, as citizens, we have different moral responsibilities to those with whom we share a common past and who we depend upon for social cooperation across a much wider set of issues. In this view, it seems perfectly reasonable, and even democratically legitimate, to ask whether the UK’s development policy serves the interests of UK voters.

The larger and more important question is what British interests and values should be. Here there are potentially very different interpretations. One potential vision is of competition and exceptionalism – doing whatever it takes to put the interests of British people first, and disregarding what that might mean for anybody outside the country.

The problem with this is that no nation, not even countries as powerful as the US or China, can successfully cut itself off entirely from the world. The most pressing challenges that affect society today – like combating climate change – are global. The US can buy up the world’s entire stock of Covid-19 medicines, but unless the virus is under control elsewhere it will be difficult to reopen the global economy from which the country prospers. As Yuval Harari argues, if patriotism is about taking care of your compatriots, “in the twenty-first century in order to protect the safety and security of your compatriots, you must cooperate with foreigners. So good nationalists should now be globalists”.

Being the ‘British values’ we want to see

As the UK’s development policy shifts to a more explicit focus on the British ‘national interest’ and ‘values’, there should be intense debate as to what those interests and values might be. People who want to champion migration and trade policies that support the world’s poorest need to be arguing for a more outward-looking and cooperative patriotism. But they also need to pay more attention to the most vulnerable closer to home, even if they earn significantly more than $1.90 per day.

The development sector is currently ill-equipped to shape those debates. In the UK, development NGOs and think tanks come together to support increases in aid, to champion debt relief or to bemoan mergers of development agencies. They were less visible when benefits to the UK’s poorest were being cut.

My organisation shares culpability here. I work for the ‘Overseas’ Development Institute, originally formed to influence debates on development happening elsewhere, but not at home. I have done work on public finance reforms in the ‘developing world’, but rarely challenged fiscal policy at home.

Those of us committed to values of universal solidarity cannot keep commenting on what is happening out there, while saying nothing about what is happening at home. We need a global reset and conversation, yes, but this needs to be tied much more closely to what is happening in my local community, my country and neighbouring countries.