The current commitment to a nonsensical ‘war on terror’ is exacerbating division, undermining international law and the UN, encouraging proliferation and increasingly marginalising the commitment to international development.
Tony Blair said some time ago that the establishment of the Department for International Development was one of the great successes of his Government. This is a little ironic. The commitment was made by a Labour Party Policy Commission chaired by Robin Cook and then in the six month period of consultation before the ’97 election, the Foreign Office did their best to persuade both Blair and Cook that the commitment was a mistake. When Blair appointed me to the Shadow post, he said that he doubted the wisdom of the policy and asked me to look at the experience of other countries.
This points in many different directions but senior staff at the old ODA were absolutely clear that we should stick with the commitment because development considerations need to shift policy on trade, arms sales, environment, international financial institutions and much more. Only a separate department has the authority to challenge policy across Whitehall.
The old ODA was an autonomous department with its own Permanent Secretary, but subject to the authority of the Foreign Secretary and lacked a seat in the Cabinet. In the early days, the department faced a barrage of hostile press briefing emanating from the Foreign Office, but with central authority focused elsewhere., we set about building our expertise on trade, ensuring that I rather than Gordon Brown became Governor of the World Bank and we refocused the whole of our policy around the achievement of the International Development Targets (which later became the Millennium Development Goals). Morale was high, we produced our first White Paper which won considerable respect and was influential internationally. We rethought every aspect of policy and decentralised a department passionately committed to the new agenda. We also worked tenaciously across Whitehall at both official and Ministerial level to shift inherited attitudes.
The going was rough in the early days. The Foreign Office was profoundly hostile; the Treasury worried about the growing influence of DfID in the World Bank and IMF; the Department of Trade and Industry was furious that we had established a trade department and had the finance for example to help establish a legal advisory centre so that poor countries could enforce their legal rights in the WTO – one of the very few positives that came out of the WTO meeting in Seattle. Defra officials were less hostile when DfID accompanied them to international environment negotiations but envied our expertise, budget and influence with developing countries.
We also worked to encourage a change in thinking about aid so that it was seen as an investment fund that would help poor countries create the institutional arrangements that would improve their economic prospects and speed up their investment in human development. This meant an end to a proliferation of projects with union jacks fluttering over them and instead, long term commitments to invest funds in the budgets of countries that would commit to work jointly to clean up the management of the public finances, tax policies and procurement. I therefore halted all announcements of new aid commitments when the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary travelled, which caused fury amongst the staff preparing their visits. We also used our aid to leverage reform in all the UN agencies we funded and in the rest of the international system.
This was a joyous time to work in the department. Morale was high, our international influence was strong and the clarity of our thinking and decentralised structures meant that we were effective wherever we worked. Most of this rethinking and restructuring was put in place in the first two years when we had a terrible struggle with the Treasury to win any increase in our budget. This meant that when after the first comprehensive spending review our budget grew, we knew exactly what we were doing and how to best spend our money. The Treasury targets that came with the new money caused considerable unhappiness, but we shaped them around the focus on the International Development targets that we had already put in place and put a lot of effort into reassuring the staff that it did not mean a change of direction.
The campaign for enhanced debt relief was very prominent in those years. The Treasury had a long standing record of high profile announcements of debt relief for public debt that would never have been paid anyway and the NGOs’ demand was for unconditional debt relief. Our effort was to use debt relief to reshape the way the World Bank operated. We worked with other countries and progressive forces in the Bank to establish the requirement that countries that wished to qualify for debt relief must put in place a poverty reduction strategy focused on reforms that would promote economic growth and increased expenditure on health and education for the poor. This structure remains in place and has deepened and strengthened and means that the Bank is less focused on funding projects and more on supporting governments with comprehensive poverty reduction strategies.
These were good days in international development. We made progress on debt relief, the UN marked the new millennium by committing to a systematic global effort to meet the Millennium Development Goals; the Bank and IMF were shifted from the old Washington consensus to a focus on the measurable reduction of poverty; the WTO at Doha in 2001 signed up to a trade round focused on making trade rules fairer for poor countries; and at the UN meeting in Monterrey on financing for development, the world agreed to increase aid and reached a new consensus that a balance of effective government and free market was the best way to reduce poverty. In addition at the UN meeting on Environment in Johannesburg in 2002 following on from Kyoto he only way to work together to preserve our environmental resources was to commit to a reduction of poverty and greater equity so that within such a consensus we could agree to co-operate to share the planet’s environmental resources.
Then in early 2003 came the refocus on the “war on terror”, the invasion of Iraq and failure to deliver on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. DfID had to work on the hopeless task of reconstruction in Iraq and the very difficult challenge of Afghanistan. With this shift in priorities, the UN was weakened, the world increasingly divided and the UK’s reputation reduced. In addition, both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor wanted to be seen to be strongly committed to development, so there was more interference and stronger spin. In my view, neither the Commission for Africa nor the Gleneagles meeting of the G8 added much of substance to the existing agenda, but they did little harm and ensured that the Chancellor had to continue to increase the DfID budget.
My conclusion is that the establishment of the department was a great success and it remains one of the more influential and effective international development agencies. The great failure is that it is now being used more as a counterweight for a deeply blemished foreign policy than as a central thrust of that policy.
The greatest threat to the future of humanity is global warming. The other great threats are the bitterness and instability of the Middle East, the growth in world population to 8-9 billion against a backdrop of increasingly scarce environmental resources, weak states and growing criminality and political insurgency. The other great threat is nuclear proliferation. They only way through this enormous challenge that could bring to an end the existence of our relatively recently evolved species, is a stronger commitment to multilateralism, international law, equity and justice.
The development perspective points the way forward. The current commitment to a nonsensical “war on terror” is exacerbating division, undermining international law and the UN, encouraging proliferation and increasingly marginalising the commitment to development. I am afraid we are going to see growing crises and catastrophes before we get back to a more intelligent world order but when that time comes, DfID and other agencies like it can point the way forward.