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Process and warm words are not good enough for the world’s poorest

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 11:31

Photo: DECC archive.

By Douglas Alexander MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

This summer marked five years since the remarkable Make Poverty History march took place in Edinburgh, and the Live 8 concerts took place around the world.

As someone who took part in the march on that historic day, I was struck by the possibilities of the moment, and a confidence in the transformative power of politics, buoyed by the determination of people inspired by a just cause.

Significant strides forward in the fight against global poverty have been made since then – in no small part because of the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

But still today too many children continue to die before their fifth birthday, and too many people remain denied the chance of a sustainable livelihood.

Despite this, there is also much progress to celebrate such as on education, where the savings from debt relief, development assistance, and scaled-up prioritisation by developing countries, means that 42 million more children have enrolled in school. Or in Sierra Leone, where Labour’s support helped make healthcare free for pregnant women and babies, potentially saving the lives of thousands.

It was Labour who chose to cancel debt, treble the aid budget, and create, in the words of a key OECD report earlier this summer, a Department for International Development which gained “national and international recognition for its professionalism and ability to deliver its aid programme effectively”.

That endorsement is a powerful reminder of the importance of political leadership.

Sadly, the coalition are choosing a different path, diverting attentions with processes and dressing them up with warm words.

They speak of their commitment to the 0.7% aid target but lack a clear forward agenda despite a critical UN summit this month.

We saw a faltering performance at the G8 in Canada by David Cameron, where he let the Gleneagles commitments be dropped, and agreed to a lacklustre package on maternal health described by Oxfam as: “lower than our lowest expectations.”

And deeply worryingly, a series of leaks and revelations from the Department for International Development over recent weeks have suggested the coalition intends to divert the aid budget and drop key commitments.

One document showed how the government planned to abandon over 80 key international commitments, even cynically listing some items as ‘unlikely to be noticed’.

And bizarrely, when tragic disasters in Pakistan and Niger show why more international co-ordination is needed, one item listed to be dropped is Labour’s commitment to increase funding for a key UN disaster response mechanism.

The documents also confirmed that there were no plans to retain Labour’s pledge that no more than 10% of the aid budget should be diverted for climate finance. And another showed the risks of the ‘securitisation’ of the aid budget – with the new National Security Council now taking control of some aid spending.

Andrew Mitchell’s justification that commitments are being dropped to be replaced with clear outcomes based pledges, misleads both about Labour’s record – and his few months in office.

Our proposals on malaria were clearly tied to the goal of preventing 165,000 child deaths, by delivering 10 million new bednets each year from 2010 to 2013. The new government has instituted an input target of spending £500 million a year, leaving other spending on health and diseases like HIV/AIDS unclear.

The Global Campaign for Education, said of plans to scrap education pledges: “If Andrew Mitchell…makes this decision it will fatally undermine any chance of getting 72 million children currently out of school into a classroom.”

And, Oxfam said that any move to quietly drop such commitments would be a “desperately backward step for poor people”.

Bill Clinton said in a recent speech that we now find ourselves in a world “awash with trouble” in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Millions are being pushed back into poverty, while pressure rises for donor governments across Europe and the world to slash aid funding.

We must make anew the case for aid and development in this changed context. The imperatives have not changed – we must restate the moral argument and highlight the common interest.

The new government could have taken a bold decision to face down right-wing critics by drawing on the praise of the OECD, introducing the promised legislation to meet the 0.7% aid target from 2013, retaining key commitments, and demonstrating committed international leadership.

Instead, they appear to be creating straw men to burn as part of an ill-conceived strategy to please sceptics on the right of the Tory party.

A focus on transparency, value for money and robust evaluation are of course important.

Grand statements, for example about “shutting down” already closed (Russia) or closing programmes (China) risk creating a false picture.

And whilst reviewing programmes is natural, implying that this is needed because our aid money was being wasted, or delivered in a ‘scattergun’ approach, is wrong, given that 90% of UK bilateral aid was already focused on just 23 countries.

The government must rapidly set out a clear and ambitious forward agenda and clarify its position on the proposals to drop key commitments.

The poorest and most vulnerable people in the world deserve no less.