I read the 44-page policy paper so you don’t have toby Steve Bloomfield / March 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
Labour is launching its new international development policy today—something that is unlikely to get much coverage in most of the media. (Let’s face it, the press conference at the launch is going to be dominated by questions about second referendums and anti-Semitism).
The 44-page policy document is, as you would expect, a little dry—and despite its length it’s a little light on practical policies. Instead, there are pledges to introduce 16 separate reviews, working groups, plans and summits.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. And coming in the wake of both the Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal and the on-going attempts by Boris Johnson and other hard-right Conservatives to undermine the Department for International Development and fold it back into the Foreign Office, it’s good to see a political party thinking about the positive role Britain’s aid and development policy can have in the rest of the world.
Here are five things worth noting from the paper:
- Dfid staff will like it…
It’s not in the press release, but buried at the bottom of page 29 is an indication that the number of staff working at the department will increase. One of the big problems Dfid has faced in recent years is not having enough staff to manage the department’s rising budget. As this paper points out, that “endanger[s] Dfid’s oversight of contracts, its ability to understand the landscape and political context where it works and, ultimately, how effectively our aid budget is spent.” There will also be more oversight by Dfid of aid money spent by other departments—again, this will be welcomed by Dfid’s aid experts.
- …but NGOs might not
Any aid worker hoping that Labour will continue the somewhat cosy relationship it has had with NGOs in the past, will be disappointed. The paper criticises “unchecked abuses of power, an aid industry that is known for throwing its weight around in disaster zones and outmuscling local civil society organisations, and wage inequality between the lowest earners at the bottom and CEOs at the top, and between men and women.”
How aid money should be distributed instead, is left unclear. The paper promises that a Labour government will “promote inclusive local ownership of its international development projects.” It’s not entirely clear what that means.
- There will be a feminist approach (but Labour needs to find a better way of talking about it)
Labour in 1997 had Robin Cook’s “ethical dimension” to foreign policy; Labour in 2022 plans to have a “feminist approach” to international development. The aim is praiseworthy—as the paper points out women “remain under-represented and unheard around the world, denied rights and voice, and locked into cycles of disempowerment. We can only claim to be advancing equality if we are advancing women’s equality.” There are echoes here of Hillary Clintons’s “women’s rights are human rights” speech in Beijing in 1995.
But the argument begins to fall apart when the paper attempts to explain how it will work: “Based on the principles of gender justice, rights, intersectionality and solidarity, it will aim to tackle the structural causes of gender inequality, transform gender norms and challenge patriarchy in everything that Dfid does.” Labour needs to be able to talk about this in a way that makes it understandable to someone who hasn’t spent untold hours in NGO seminars.
- Labour will aim to reduce global inequality, not just poverty
This is interesting. Since Dfid began in 1997 its aim has been to reduce poverty. If Labour is elected, the department will have an additional goal of reducing inequality. This will be a tricky political challenge. Only the hard of heart don’t want to reduce poverty—reducing inequality requires more dramatic action and can mean greater redistribution from the rich. The paper talks a good game about why this is important, but it gets a bit fuzzier when it comes to explaining what this will mean in practice. There’s a lot of talk about “raising the bar” and “mak[ing] the case.” The one truly radical policy it proposes is a global wealth tax, but even here the language is cautious: Labour “will call for an international commission to explore the possibility.”
In the foreword to this paper, Jeremy Corbyn complains about “the rigged system that has created global crisis.” Fine. But there comes a point when you need to explain what you’re going to do about it.
- None of this will make any difference to anyone’s vote—but it’s still a worthwhile exercise
In 2005, some voters based their decision on foreign policy, but you’d be hard pressed to find another election where what a party leader thinks about the rest of the world has made a difference (and even in 2005, Labour’s vote was still high enough to win a convincing majority).
This paper, even if it did somehow manage to make it on to newspaper front pages and the Six O’Clock News, won’t make a difference to anyone’s vote either. But it at least shows that Labour is beginning to think about what sort of government it wants to be. And for those who work in aid and development it will be a welcome change to have a secretary of state that actually seems to care about the department’s work.