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Where are the political divides on international development?

Written by Simon Maxwell

With Gordon Brown about to take office, ODI asked representatives of the three main political parties in the UK to speak on the theme ‘What’s Next in International Development?’.  These three speeches tell us something about the issues that will shape political debate in the months to come.

Gareth Thomas, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at DFID, and Hilary Benn’s Deputy, spoke first, on 5 June.  The meeting report is here. He discussed five topics: a) the ‘narrative’ on international development; (b) working with Governments; (c) the challenge of population growth; (d) the UN and Europe; and (e) some partisan thoughts.  It was notable that he stressed emerging issues beyond the current emphasis on the Millennium Development Goals; these included the impact of globalisation, environmental challenges, and a new agenda related to conflict and terrorism.  He also laid great stress on the necessary role of governments in underpinning the delivery of services to poor people.  He was strongly multilateralist in his approach.

Andrew Mitchell, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, spoke on 7 June. The meeting report is here.  He spoke particularly about three topics: (a) aid effectiveness and aid evaluation; (b) trade; and (c) conflict resolution.  He laid out the Conservative case for an independent aid watchdog.  He said the Conservatives would be more vocal on corruption than the Labour Government.  He argued strongly for trade liberalisation, between countries in the South as well as between developed and developing countries.  And he developed ideas about conflict and post-conflict work, which he described as probably ‘the most important area’ facing international development.

Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson, spoke on 14 June.  The meeting report is here.  She focused on the need for joined-up thinking across Government Departments, and developed the argument that this was not happening on a sufficient scale.  Her examples included: trade, sanctions, the arms trade, ‘vulture funds’, climate change and corruption.  In all these cases, she argued, lack of action by other Departments was undermining the work of DFID.

Party political sparring aside, it seems to me (and this is a personal blog, remember, not a statement on behalf of ODI, let alone on behalf of the political parties) that we can draw ten main conclusions from the debate:

First, there is a strong cross-party consensus on the importance of international development.  All parties recognise the value of having an independent Department and Secretary of State. All are committed to achieving 0.7% of aid, by 2013 at the latest (with the Liberal Democrats aiming for an earlier date).  Andrew Mitchell described the international development agenda as a British agenda, not a party one.

Second, there is also cross-party consensus on the view that aid is not enough on its own.  All three speakers discussed issues like trade, conflict, climate change and migration.  There are however, some differences of emphasis in how much prominence is given to these various issues.  Gareth Thomas went so far as to frame a set of challenges to the existing, MDG-focused ‘narrative’ on international development.  The others did not go quite so far.

Third, the institutional implications were hinted at rather than fully developed.  Andrew Mitchell thought that DFID was leading on some important aspects of the non-aid agenda, for example in Darfur.  Lynne Featherstone was particularly strong in dissecting the alleged lack of joined-up thinking across Government.

Fourth, climate change could be a test of how joined-up thinking is managed.  All three speakers identified climate change as a key topic.  For Lynne Featherstone, this was the ‘over-riding imperative’: she called for a Make Poverty History campaign on the subject, and for climate change proofing in all development programmes.

Fifth, aid effectiveness looks likely to be an important battle-ground, especially, as Andrew Mitchell emphasised, if public expenditure is constrained in coming years, so that aid is increasing as other areas are being cut.  All parties share a concern that aid should be seen to deliver results.  The Conservatives have taken the lead in arguing for independent impact evaluation, nationally and internationally (though the Government has recently made proposals to strengthen aid evaluation in the UK).

Sixth, corruption is another topic where, as Andrew Mitchell put it, other parties will ‘go further’ than the Government.  Lynne Featherstone’s remarks on this topic suggested that she would agree.  The Government, of course, has taken corruption seriously (see e.g. the White Paper published last year).  The issue is more about how vocal to be in denouncing corruption in particular cases and in following through with changes to either the amount of aid provided or the way it is delivered.  This is a subtle debate which will take shape as new ‘case law’ emerges.  Andrew Mitchell suggested that the Conservatives would be less ‘tolerant’ than the Government.  There are also proposals for specific initiatives: Lynne Featherstone made a number of suggestions; Hugh Bayley’s Corruption Bill is also relevant.

Seventh, the extent of commitment to multilateralism could be an area to watch.  Gareth Thomas was clear that the UK should demand more of both the UN and the EU, and that ongoing reform should be supported.  Andrew Mitchell talked about the role of the UN, especially in peace-keeping, calling for it to be more ‘muscular’.  He did not discuss multilateral delivery of aid, at least on this occasion.  Nor did Lynne Featherstone, though she did call for a UN-led process on climate change.

Eighth, there was an interesting difference of emphasis on the role of governments.  Gareth Thomas was emphatic that only Governments could underwrite service provision, and was sceptical of the view that NGOs could take on this job.  Andrew Mitchell did not take on this challenge directly, but was positive about NGOs.  There are interesting debates taking place domestically about the role of the state and the future of the third sector that could usefully inform this debate.  See, for example, a recent speech by Ed Miliband.

Ninth, another interesting aspect to watch will be the link back into domestic politics.  The need to defend development spending in the face of competing demands is only one aspect of this.  Gareth Thomas, for example, spoke about the domestic face of international issues, like the impact of heroin exports from Afghanistan to the UK, or the impact of trade liberalisation on food prices at home.  Similarly, Lynne Featherstone talked from her experience as a London politician, about the importance of decentralisation and the balance between strong, strategic vision at the centre and devolution of implementation to subsidiary bodies.

Finally, there are some dogs that did not bark in this particular conversation, or not too loudly.  The ideological divides are relatively muted.  Aid architecture was little discussed.  The doctrine of liberal intervention received only passing mention (though Andrew Mitchell was especially strong on Darfur).  The population challenge raised by Gareth Thomas needs further thought and discussion.

Many people attended these meetings.  What have I missed?  Are there any other themes from our earlier meetings on ‘What’s Next?’ that should feature in the debate?