As part of Prospect's new aid supplement in partnership with Adam Smith International, the shadow international development secretary discusses how Labour plans to radically transform how Britain delivers aidby Steve Bloomfield / November 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
Dan Carden’s father was a Liverpool docker—indeed his family’s link to the docks goes back six generations. But when Carden was a child in the late 1990s, his father lost his job during the Liverpool dockers dispute. It was a battle that taught him about the idea of international solidarity—the Liverpool dockers were supported by dockers around the world who carried out solidarity strikes and raised money. That experience, Carden says, has helped shape his view of the UK’s international development policy.
The cross-party consensus on aid has broken down since David Cameron stepped down as prime minister. Theresa May’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent on international development was lukewarm, while her successor, Boris Johnson, has floated the idea of merging DFID back into the foreign office. But while the splits in the Conservative party on international development have been well covered, there has been less analysis of the Labour party’s change of direction. And make no mistake, a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn—and with Carden running DFID—would take a very different attitude to aid and development than those led by Blair and Brown.
In his House of Commons office last month, Carden outlined what he described as his “radical” agenda that would dramatically transform the UK’s international development policy.
Prospect: Has Labour’s international development policy changed since the Blair and Brown years?
Carden: I’m incredibly proud that 22 years ago we created this department—but now is a very different time. When I look at the kind of inequality that exists in the world—and we think of those statistics of 26 people having the same wealth as half of humanity—we’re not talking about countries just needing to develop or needing a helping hand or some charity. We’ve got political and economic relationships that need absolutely fundamental reform. Charity will not solve poverty.
I want DFID to be a campaigning organisation—to look at how we promote public services, how we promote things that deliver equality and tackle poverty.
Prospect: Do you think DFID has lost its way?
Carden: I was in Nairobi in August and the people I met were anti-poverty campaigners, trade unionists, and others in the sector. Their message was pretty clear about DFID’s role. In education, [they said] too much of DFID’s work was actually promoting private schools. That was partly done through the CDC [the development finance institution owned by the UK government] but it was also an agenda of the DFID country office. I met the DFID team, I was very impressed with them. But their agenda is one of economic development—opening up markets and these types of things. My shift will be totally away from that.
We will set up a unit for public services that covers health, education and Wash (water and sanitation) services, and we will develop an expertise in London to make sure that where we’re investing money, government can deliver public services.
Prospect: In the past, DFID has found itself supporting corrupt governments. Is there a danger that your policy would lead to more of that?
Carden: That’s probably the key question. Part of the unit’s role will be about accountability, about anti-corruption. I think it’s wrong simply to say that we cannot work with and support governments for fear of corruption. I mean, how much corruption is there in the private sector? As a matter of principle, it has to be right to work with governments to deliver on what we have over here.
Prospect: Is there still enough public support for the current level of UK aid spending?
Carden: I don’t think I can win an argument with people in north Liverpool, who have homeless people on the streets, our public services at breaking point, a local council that’s about to go bust, and say, ‘right we should be giving 14 billion quid abroad to the poorest people because it’s the right thing to do’ when they see all that on their own streets.
I think I can make an argument by saying we have poverty in north Liverpool because of an economic system that is rigged against people in our own country who are poor. And we have poverty globally because of an economic system that is rigged against the poorest people. What people understand about development in this country is the NHS, is free public services, is education for all. I can make those arguments for development for the global south.
Prospect: Does the argument have to be more nuanced now?
Carden: As we’ve seen real crisis poverty in this country grow—from food banks to homelessness—absolutely. Winning the debate around aid is much more difficult. The Conservative government has gone down the route of talking about national interest. I disagree fundamentally with that approach. It’s got to be a move away from charity and development. What about solidarity, social justice, economic justice?
I think there is a kind of groundswell of support for a radical change. It can’t be pushing PFI or PPP models around the world through aid. That cannot be the answer to grotesque poverty and inequality.
Prospect: Should aid be spent by other departments?
Carden: We’re looking at that. We did set a 30 per cent cap on money that can be spent by other departments. We are looking at perhaps tightening that up. Part of tightening that up might not be the amount of the spent by the departments, but it might be the sign-off process or it might be how you make sure it’s spent as well as it would be by DFID, because we know through all the assessments that the aid spent by DFID is actually far better spent.
Prospect: Does DFID currently give aid to the right organisations?
Carden: Civil society and trade unions are the types of stakeholders that I’m keen to make sure are empowered by DFID—those people on the ground. We have a real determination to have a feminist foreign policy, a policy that empowers civil society groups, LGBT groups and others. And so making sure that DFID is an organisation that’s led by people on the ground and engages with those people is really important.
Prospect: Do you think in the past DFID has worked too closely with other governments and western NGOs?
Carden: And too many political consultants. There needs to be engagement with people on the ground. We need to make sure that DFID’s focus is not just on business leaders, like Alok Sharma has been talking about, but is actually on the poorest communities. A lot of these communities have the solutions and need empowering themselves.