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From seeds to simcards - what's missing from Britain's offer to the world on development


Andrew Mitchell’s speech on ‘Beyond Aid’ at the Wellcome Trust last night proved interesting timing. With the competence of governments, and particularly European governments, being severely tested at present, his core message struck an important chord: while aid and government matters hugely for development, development is also about much more: it’s about the private sector and wealth creation; it’s about world class research and the ability to turn good ideas into action (from ‘seeds to simcards’); it’s about a vibrant philanthropic and charitable sector supporting and funding innovation (aka the Wellcome Trust); it’s about the rules of the game that root out corruption and recover stolen assets on behalf of developing economies; and it’s about the everyday acts of ‘global-facing citizens’ who are motivated to support and work on behalf of those worse off than themselves.  

The speech fizzed with examples of the way in which development draws on this powerful combination of private, public and citizen-based action:  ‘Britain’s offer to the world’, Mitchell said, ‘comes from all of us and not just government’.   

But at a time when the UK publics’ view of the world is shaped by stories of dysfunctional institutions and political inertia, there were also some things missing.

There was no direct reference to the eurozone crisis, nor to the recent G20 summit and its implications for a more policy coherent approach to development. He appeared to deliberately avoid picking up on Bill Gates’ speech to the G20, which I would have thought would have been a good hook for his message that ‘it’s not all or only about aid or governments’. But most glaringly absent was any acknowledgement that the UK has a lot more to do on its beyond-aid agenda. 

Mitchell noted the positive ranking of UK funding and policy on climate change in the latest Commitment to Development Index 2011. The same could be said on development-friendly investment and, of course, aid.  What he didn’t mention, however, is that in the very same index, the UK continues to be ranked amongst the bottom four (out of 22 OECD countries) on security (largely reflecting the continued export of military hardware to poor and undemocratic regimes); on technology (mainly regarding spending on research and development and intellectual property rights issues); and, worst of all, on migration (which reflects how easy – or not – it is for people from poor countries to immigrate, access education or find work, send money home, and even return home with new skills and capital). This is the dark side of UK policy on development and it is not heading in the right direction.

As Mitchell celebrates the powerful alchemy of public, private and voluntary sector commitment to development in the UK, he needs also to focus his energy on making UK policy as a whole development-friendly.