By Lawrence Haddad
Last week the Government suffered a hard power defeat when parliament voted against military action in Syria at this time. This, some senior Government ministers said, should lead the UK to do some “soul searching” about its role in the world. At the UN General Assembly in New York in two weeks time, the Government has the opportunity to register a major soft power success; one that would signal much to the rest of the world about the role the UK can play in global affairs. A key item on the 68th Session’s agenda is to discuss how to accelerate progress on the Millennium Development Goals and to agree a timetable and process for the establishment of new global Development Goals.
David Cameron's Government has already proved its ability to contribute significantly to the process of developing new global Development Goals. The report of the Secretary General’s High Level Panel, co-chaired by the UK, Liberia and Indonesia was widely praised for its vision, clarity and comprehensiveness and it provides a good starting point for the discussions that will continue over the next 20 months. The Prime Minister has also been staunch in his defence of the UK's aid spending. Government spending on aid is at 0.7% of Gross National Income, and in spite of heavy pressure from the “bongo bongo land” crowd the PM has held firm in his commitment. I was in the audience at the June Nutrition for Growth event in London and he convinced me that development is something he really cares about.
The Government's nerve needs to hold for the remainder of this Parliament because a lot is at stake. First, there is a real sense of momentum right now, and as the Millennium Development Goals Report of 2013 (pdf) shows, progress in development outcomes is strong in every region. This needs to be maintained to further encourage development champions fighting for progressive change within their countries. Second, the West is slowly emerging from its economic slowdown and while this will not lead to large increases in aid, it will help these countries to be more outward looking—an essential prerequisite for the collective action needed to solve key development issues such as climate change, tax flows, trade and the control of cross border flows of arms and narcotics. Third, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are feeling confident in their strong macroeconomic economic performance, are generating economic opportunities, attracting investment and are becoming increasingly influential. It is clearly in the UK’s narrow as well as broader national interests to stay at the forefront of progressive global change.
For the UK Government, holding its nerve on the international development agenda will not be easy with an election a mere 20 months away. First, as a 2012 YouGov-Chatham House survey reports (pdf), spending levels on international development remains unpopular with the electorate. Second, the nationalist UK Independence Party's recent rise, if sustained, will put additional pressure on the Government to lower its commitment to international development. Third, the vote on Syria will be interpreted by some as a victory for a Britain that should shun the outside world.
The benefits to the UK's leadership in thinking and action on global development are many. Some are intangible: the soft power that we bank as a result of our commitment to working with others, the relationships we build up in an increasingly interconnected world, the know-how we gain that gives us a competitive edge, the boost to a pluralistic culture that gives our nation such richness, and the identity that reaffirms it is right to work to support others who are less fortunate than we are. But these intangibles are not the reason many of us commit to international development. We need to see the tangible benefits that the UK brings to the table.
The Nutrition for Growth event in June was one of many examples. At that event, 4 billion dollars were raised to help 165 million infants to escape malnutrition. That money will not go into Ray-Bans, Ferraris and F-18s, it will go into breastfeeding promotion, the fortification of flour with iron, the iodization of salt, the distribution of vitamin A capsules to children suffering from eye problems, the distribution of rehydration solution to children with chronic diarrhoea and vomiting, programmes to get rid of parasitic worms living in the guts of tens of millions of children--the list goes on. These types of interventions address the cause as well as the symptom because they help children do better in school (their brains have not been damaged in the first 2 years of life) and earn more money later in life. Estimates show that children that avoid malnutrition early in life are 33% more likely to escape poverty 40 years later. Without UK leadership that funding would not have been raised. Funding that will help prevent malnutrition in millions of infants.
So what does the UK government need to do at the General Assembly in New York?
First, convince its UK partners that it remains strong on development. The UK has some of the most effective NGOs, civil servants, researchers and think tanks in development and they are better able to do their job with an inspirational and committed Government. Second, rally the other Western nations to stay focussed on global development. There are lots of domestic and international distractions and the recent G8 summit was not exactly an overwhelming success. Third, continue to play the delicate role of making significant contributions to thinking about the global Development Goals while being part of a collective endeavour.
What are those significant contributions to thinking about the next global Development Goals? As some of our work at IDS has shown, make sure the Goals can be designed by everyone, ensuring that the less powerful and the less frequently heard are listened to—these are their Goals too. Make sure the goals are for everyone within a country, especially the most destitute, but also for the generations to come—this means focusing more on equity and more on sustainability. Make sure the goals are for each country—the language of developed and developing countries is an anachronism.
When it comes to global development, we all have a stake and we all have responsibilities—we really are all in this together. There’s no need for soul searching, just action.