22 September 2010

Poetry or Prose? The Liberal Democrats in limbo on international development

I just returned from Liberal Democrat party conference in Liverpool. IDS organized a panel on “7 lessons for increasing the impact of aid”, chaired by Malcolm Bruce the Chair of the Select Committee on International Development. We were also part of a panel that BOND, the umbrella organization for UK NGOs working on international development, had organized on the Lib Dem’s new development policy paper.

The Lib Dems are in limbo on international development. Prior to the May 2010 General Election their international development manifesto was quite different from that of the Conservatives. The Conservative manifesto highlights enlightened self interest and a stronger Britain in a safer world, while the Lib Dem manifesto highlights meeting Britain’s obligations to the world and securing Britain’s future with global action. These are quite different framings.

The Lib Dem manifesto has been updated in a Policy Paper published this week, and it’s clear that their positions have remained true to their manifesto. While there are plenty of points of agreement with the Coalition Government (the 0.7 target, aid effectiveness, transparency and accountability, the role of business, need for reformed multilaterals) there are several key tensions as well. Examples include:

  • The strong focus on rights
  • The strong emphasis on development as a political process
  • Very strong priority given to climate change as a development issue
  • Strong accountability to the poor as well as to the UK taxpayer
  • Communication is seen as a way of empowering people
These seem to be substantive differences with current Coalition perspectives and priorities, although the magnitude of them is probably amplified by the need to “campaign in poetry and to govern in prose”.

How far can the Lib Dems’ poetry influence the Coalition Government’s prose? It will be difficult. They have no ministers in DFID. It helps that Nick Clegg, the Deputy PM, is representing the UK at the MDG summit. It helps that Malcolm Bruce, a Lib Dem MP, is the Chair of the International Development Select Committee who hold DFID to account. It also helps that the two candidates for the Lib Dem Party President, Susan Kramer (former International Development spokesperson) and Tim Farron MP (de facto International Development spokesperson) are well versed in the issues.

I hope they find a way to influence, because their policy paper is full of good ideas on aid and development. It is also important for their own prospects as they will have to convince their supporters that they have not “sold out” on this important Lib Dem electoral issue come the general election of 2015.

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