Making the case for UK leadership on international development is never straight-forward but foreign policy is even more likely to be overlooked in times of domestic economic pain. All too often the development debate degenerates into reductive arguments for and against aid. This is a shame. The UK leads much of the world in effective development policy, and has maintained the resources needed to deliver long-term results that help some of the poorest people in the world. This leadership should be celebrated, not least because it is also firmly in the national interest.
Somalia is a good example of this. What happens in Somalia affects us in Britain. The issues are deeper than just the moral outrage we felt last summer when famine returned to the country, and when Britons dug deeper than ever before to help the millions of people suffering the effects of a devastating food crisis. We are also impacted when ships are attacked in the Gulf of Aden by pirates, terrorists exploit the vacuum in law enforcement and effective governance, and instability spreads to neighbouring countries. The UK government has correctly identified Somalia as a foreign policy priority for those reasons and will host a conference in February to mobilise support for a Somali-led plan, supported by the international community, to get the country back on track. Central to that should be a coordinated multi-year push on long-term agricultural support to ensure the 2011 famine is the last in human history.
UK leadership is also needed to bolster the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria, which remains an essential vehicle for delivering improvements in global health and for driving momentum in the effort to achieve the beginning of the end of AIDS. Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has voiced his support, but for now a significant funding gap has left new programmes on hold until 2014. In 2012 we are looking to the UK to double its annual contribution to the Fund. This could pay for over a million anti-malarial bednets and treat 400,000 malaria and TB patients, while closing the funding gap by a quarter and intensifying pressure on the US and Australia to step up their own commitments. A UK push on family planning later in the year will provide an opportunity to end the tip-toeing around the controversial issue of population, and will further solidify the UK as a global leader on maternal and child health.
However, 2012 will be about far more than securing improved outcomes in health and agriculture. The UK finds itself in a uniquely strong position to push forward reforms that will help developing country governments make the most of their own resources. The UK will co-chair two key international bodies: the Open Government Partnership and the G20 working group on anti-corruption. In both cases the UK needs to win support for coordinated moves to tackle the housing of stolen assets that have been hidden away abroad by corrupt leaders, a clampdown on corporations who don’t pay fair taxes in developing countries, and establishing norms for open and transparent government budget processes.
Central to the vital work to improve transparency is a new European law to force oil, gas, mining and forestry companies to publish the payments they make for every project in every country they operate. This will shine a light on a previously murky business, and empower civil society with the information they need to hold corporations and governments accountable. The UK has supported the European proposals so far, but it needs to play a vocal role in Brussels to counteract fierce lobbying from oil companies determined to maintain secrecy.
If the UK is to carry the weight it needs to make the most of these opportunities for international leverage, it is vital that it continues its principled promise-keeping on overseas aid. Legislation will shortly be introduced in Parliament to fix spending at the UN-agreed target of 0.7% of national income. This will catapult the issue up the political agenda. The short-termists will argue we need the money to close our budget deficit, but recent polls show the majority of Brits support this policy. Even so, we’ll need all who have supported this policy from the days of Make Poverty History and before – businesses, faith leaders, military figures, charity workers and ordinary citizens – to speak out and make it clear that aid remains a sound investment as well as being resolutely the right thing to do. Amongst many other things spending 0.7% of GNI on aid will allow us to put 16 million children in school over the next four years. It will also stabilise fragile states, build markets for British companies and contribute to Briton’s soft power globally.
The reality is that pulling up the drawbridge and abandoning a position of strength on international issues in 2012 would be a poor strategic choice for Britain. A holistic set of policies that are in the common interest of both UK citizens and some of the poorest people in the world are well within our reach. In an Olympic year when the government is encouraging us to consider what is GREAT about Britain, the UK’s contribution to the fight against global poverty should be front and centre.