At the Labour Party conference in September Ed Miliband spoke about the dangers of a race to the bottom – of falling real wages and problems inherent in the unfair distribution of the benefits of growth. And if a rising tide must lift all boats, this should include those in developing countries.
Labour can claim many wins in international development, including: cancelling debt and doubling aid, establishing the Department for International Development in place of the Overseas Development Agency, making progress towards reaching the aid target of 0.7% of GNP and paying much greater attention to climate change.
There is a growing public awareness of linkages between countries, and between workers, recently sharpened with the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, where workers toiled and died in unsafe conditions and at low pay, to produce clothes for our UK chain stores.
In a time of austerity, somewhat mirroring the experience of developing countries with structural adjustment, the politics of protecting the aid budget will remain challenging. Yet, poverty, marginalisation and violence blights the lives of too many. So the world chases targets set in the Millennium Development Goals and more support is still needed.
Jim Murphy and his team, Gavin Shuker and Alison McGovern (who is returning to DfID) will have to prioritise making a compelling political argument for continued development spending. They must influence the post-2015 development goals and shape a development discourse that takes into account international research while listening to local voices.
On the first, there is cross-party consensus on the 0.7% target for aid, repeatedly confirmed in international agreements. The UK finally reached this target in 2013 – a significant milestone – but the new DfID shadow team must ensure the ground is laid for enshrining this commitment in law.
Much hope greeted the MDGs when they were first agreed. But two years short of the target date there is widespread confirmation that most will not be met – a fact admitted in DfID’s own 2012-2013 review.
In 2015, the MDGs will not only remain a work in progress but that year they will be replaced by a new set of goals, currently still in negotiation. Earlier this year, Labour flagged some ‘non-negotiables’ in this, including systems of social protection, universal healthcare and compulsory education, decent labour standards, access to basic utilities and a specific objective focused on women’s empowerment and equality.
There was also a commitment to work towards the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity and to mitigate the harm of climate change. The environment barely featured in the MDGs but it will have to be centre stage in the future.
Crucially, human rights featured in this global vision. Proving to be of clear relevance to the poor and marginalised in the developing world, Labour’s team would do well to pursue the explicit inclusion of human rights in the global agenda post-2015. Macro (and relevant) concerns with trade and financial flows should increasingly have regard to their impact in fulfilling or violating such rights.
There is a pressing need to deal with tax avoidance in rich countries and strengthen infrastructure so as to maximise tax revenue in developing countries. The new team shadowing DfID will need to support practical progress and address the fact that many tax havens are in UK overseas territories and dependencies.
The overarching challenge for rich countries in the development world is to turn on its head the lingering colonial flavour that can surface in their relationships between former colonies. A humility and willingness to hear from and work respectfully with geo-political non-powers would require a new dynamic – where, for example, aid funds are not seen to be benefitting UK companies and plans and reviews of development efforts have increasing transparency.
If Labour can give legitimacy to those who still only know poverty and abuse rather than dignity and respect, then it will continue to make a difference.