‘British elections’ and ‘exciting’ don’t usually make it into the same sentence, but the TV debates between the party leaders have changed all that. Tonight’s second debate will focus on foreign policy, so development may even get a mention. That would be good, because so far the media perception seems to be that so much consensus makes the issue too boring to cover.
But underneath the consensus there are some deep differences in philosophy and policy that are worth thinking about. Last night I spoke at an Overseas Development Institute meeting on what ‘doing development’ in the UK might feel like under the next government. Tricky, as for the first time in 20 years we really have no idea who’s going to win, but here are some thoughts.
What won’t change
All parties have pledged to retain DFID (the Department for International Development) as a separate government department, and see the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as sacrosanct. All parties have agreed to increase aid to 0.7 of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2013, and to enshrine this in law (in the first parliamentary session, under a Conservative government). That said, fiscal pressures will be intense and we are bound to see attempts to move the goalposts on the definition of aid (to allow other spending to be counted against the target), and may even see a serious attempt to do a U-turn, especially if a suitable aid scandal provides a pretext.
Whoever wins, the push for everyone (including NGOs) to measure impact and prove effectiveness will grow, partly to shore up public and parliamentary support for aid. I have really mixed feelings about the ‘cult of measurement’ – it distorts the business of aid towards building stuff, not changing systems, but it also helps you identify successes and drop losers.
Major Post election faultlines
1. National interest/national security: Coherence is good, right? Up to a point Lord Copper. The problem is that everyone wants to coordinate, but no-one wants to be co-ordinated.
A Conservative-led government will establish a National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister and a resurgent Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The idea behind this is to make sure departments talk to each other and all work towards the same strategy, but it remains to be seen how DFID under this structure will ensure that poverty eradication is at all times its number one priority. In places like Afghanistan, it is important that development is not subordinated to other priorities.
2. Geopolitics: The Conservatives’ manifesto talks of a ‘Beyond Europe’ foreign policy, giving more priority to relations with the Commonwealth and US in a party traditionally sceptical about the UK’s role in the EU. Labour is more pro-EU, and should the Lib Dems end up in charge, for example in a hung parliament, Nick Clegg, their leader and come-from-nowhere politician of the hour, is a fervent pro-European and former MEP and adviser to Britain’s Trade Commissioner, Leon Brittan in Brussels during the 1990s. What’s not clear is whether there are major differences in attitudes towards the new global centres of power, particularly the G20.
3. What drives development – states or markets? Sounds a bit 1990s, but there are still fundamental differences in the parties’ underlying frames on how development happens. Labour instinctively looks to public and state solutions; the Tories (as the Conservatives are known) lean towards market solutions. That will influence policies on things like health and education (Labour stressing the need to abolish user fees, the Tories the importance of guaranteed access, even if it comes at a cost); financial and other regulation; or the importance of state-building in ‘fragile contexts’.
4. Who gets to talk to the minister? NGOs have enjoyed an unprecedented degree of access in previous years. That will continue (the Tories are very pro-NGO – see below), but I would expect access for other actors, like private sector and churches, to rise, and ministers only have so many hours in the day.
5. Role of NGOs: Overall, the Labour government has seen NGOs as valuable formers of public opinion, with the occasional fairly clumsy attempt to use us as cheerleaders for government policy (lots of ‘reverse lobbying’ from government advisers phoning us up and telling us what to campaign on – don’t worry, we usually ignore them). The Conservatives, on the other hand, see NGOs as a good alternative to state provision in areas like health and education, and are instinctively pro voluntary action (all that faintly patronising stuff about Burke’s ‘little platoons’). But neither party particularly prizes what NGOs increasingly see as their role – advocating for changes in public policy.
Then there’s an overall question, which is hard to answer by reading the manifestos: how much bandwidth will exist for development issues? Will it become less prominent? Since the creation of DFID in 1997, a combination of prime ministerial, government and civil society activism has given development an unprecedentedly high public profile in the UK and its foreign policy. That is not a given under any future government, especially as the inevitable austerity starts to bite.
Finally, for NGOs and other denizens in the UK development jungle, it’s a mistake to think ‘the government is changing but we will remain the same’. Pressures on service delivery, access and lots of other areas will (and arguably should) change us as well. Not the principles, I hasten to add, but the language and alliances we make as we go about our work.
[Update, 22 April: international development, poverty, hunger etc got not a single mention last night. Foreign Policy, it seems, is about war and Europe. Let's hope any future National Security Council takes a broader view]