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Reflections on Labour’s new vision for international development

Written by Andrew Shepherd


The new Labour Development Strategy is a welcome combination of vision and policy. It demonstrates that Labour want the UK to remain a strong, creative and driving international development force, working to support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In common with the SDGs, the introduction of an international development inequality goal is a great idea. Inequality drives both perceptions and politics and, as is increasingly accepted at the IMF, addressing it is an important part of shaping economic growth. Combined with an excellent emphasis on equality of gender, power and voice – excellent because these factors underpin improved security, livelihoods and access to services – this goal is a step towards both ‘development for the many’ and poverty reduction.

The commitment to implementing a feminist development strategy over five years seems timid when compared to Canada’s approach, which puts gender equality at the centre of government plans. Canada will face implementation challenges but the commitment to spend at least 15% of the international development budget on gender equality was a bolder move.

Inequality is to be measured by the Palma Index (the ratio of the incomes of the bottom 40% to the top 10%), and the Palma Premium – the extent to which the incomes of the poorest 40% increase faster than average. The document could have gone further to link the reaffirmed inequality commitment with Leave No One Behind. This needs a measure of inequality which also focuses on the poorest and most marginalised – the bottom 20% in most developing societies. As with poverty, focusing on multiple measures of inequality would be even better. For example, reducing wealth and education inequalities drives poverty reduction.

International development should be led by the Department for International Development (DFID) and aid should not be subservient to other Whitehall interests, whether security, trade or others. Currently 26% of the 0.7% of national income allocated to international development is spent by other departments and the oversight that DFID is able to exercise over this expenditure has been questioned by the National Audit Office.

For my money, Labour should go further. Achieving development effectiveness, developing long term respectful relationships with governments and the use of evidence are all part of the ‘how’ agenda. Yet despite plenty of evidence of effectiveness, the strategy does not mention the importance of aligning with government (the Paris and Accra Agenda) and providing aid in the form of budget support. It is these areas that will deliver the increased investment in health, education and social protection that the strategy imagines; especially where there are already good initiatives in place. Poorer countries’ existing initiatives must be supported and where they don’t exist, countries should be helped (or challenged) to put them in place.

There is an unspoken assumption here: that the current goal of poverty reduction (which, to align with the SDGs, should be ‘eradication’) is adequately catered for in the UK’s international development work. The job has not been done. Arguably, sufficient attention may be being paid to getting people out of poverty, but not enough is given to stopping impoverishment and to sustaining people on an upward trajectory – both of which are also needed to eradicate poverty.

The neglected art of crisis prevention is given a welcome emphasis but economic development is inadequately addressed – especially in the poorest countries, growth is vital to getting, and keeping, people out of poverty. Trade does get a mention but only in terms of what it won’t be. The current Conservative strategy is criticised for putting private profits ahead of people. But what should replace it is not clear. This is an area for further thinking, Labour should be challenged to consider issues around the quality of growth, and the challenges of generating secure, quality employment with appropriate wages and working conditions. Similarly, women’s economic empowerment, agriculture and the informal sector also need to be more directly addressed. The Chronic Poverty Advisory Network is writing a Chronic Poverty Report on growth which will tackle these issues. Watch this space.