Clare Short Prospect interview.

thomas_admin on 20th May 2002
Interview originally published in Prospect Magazine | Interviewer: Richard Dowden | 20-May-2002

Clare Short argues that it is possible to have globalisation with a human face. Here she outlines her plans for international development in the new century.

Something peculiar is happening. The final victory of capitalism in the late 1980s should have meant the political death of Clare Short and those like her on the British left. Her blunt talk in flat Brummie tones represented the honest worker, exploited and crushed by the moneyed classes. In a parallel universe, she might have become minister for class war and local co-operatives in a government led by Dennis Skinner, but in this world she seemed more likely to end up in noisy, largely irrelevant opposition.

Instead, we are both sitting in an executive jet belonging to the Queen’s Flight flying at 29,000 feet towards Africa, discussing Short’s plans for international financial controls, stopping wars, globalisation, and the future of humanity. As secretary of state for international development, Short is one of the government’s leading thinkers on these subjects. We are drinking Pomeroy (“What’s it like?” she asks. “Well, it has royal approval, Ma’am,” replies the steward. “I like the Ma’am,” grins Short and takes a big gulp.)

She leans back in what we agree must be the Queen’s seat and puts her feet up on the table, making sure that she is not upsetting her secretary sitting opposite. Short is open and intimate: all her staff call her Clare. She starts to talk about her home in Ladywood, Birmingham, where she grew up. Birmingham people rarely travel but when they do they go far. Her mother, many of her six siblings and 60 or 70 cousins still live a stone’s throw from where her mother’s grandfather settled 150 years ago, fleeing the Irish famine. But the inspiration in her life was her father, a republican teacher from Crossmaglen, the notorious IRA hole-in-the-wall on the Northern Ireland border. His passion was politics and at his knee Short first heard the names Churchill, Attlee, Eisenhower, Khrushchev and Nkrumah.

Her mother now lives a couple of streets away from the family home where Short grew up. I cannot help but overhear her call to her mother shortly after we land. She apologises for not phoning her before leaving as she usually does. How many ministers call their mothers whenever they are off base for a day or two? A devout Catholic, her mother goes to church every day and Short still goes with her when she is at home, though she calls herself an “ethnic Catholic” rather than a rigorously believing one. Her instincts and values have a strongly Catholic colouring and her politics seem to reflect a Catholic passion for social justice, rather than socialist ideology. But, as you would expect, she burns with anger at the present Pope and his attitude to women. Catholicism nags at her partly because it is the one deep belief of her parents that she can no longer accept.

Short has lived a bit. She’s a good travelling companion, womanly with the girls and blokeish with the boys. She begs some chewing gum from me and the packet later goes missing. I accuse her of nicking it. It becomes one of the trip jokes. Another is her current pet hate: duty free. She forbids her staff to buy any duty free goods. She claims it deprives governments of tax and makes you drink more because you think it’s cheap. She is interested in everything, from the airport junk where we stop to refuel, to funny things she reads out from the papers in her ministerial boxes. Most politicians strive to have a tidy life but hers has been messy. She got pregnant accidentally while at Keele University studying politics. She married the father but gave up her son for adoption. That marriage did not last and she later married Alex Lyon, the “awkward squad” Labour MP for York. He became ill with Alzheimer’s and she nursed him until he died in 1993. It left a wound in her life that was partly healed when her son came to find her in 1996. It was painful and public, but also funny and joyful. He turned out to be a Tory-voting, city lawyer.

She was first elected as MP for Ladywood, her own backyard, in 1983. Then she was a diehard leftist. But now in the confusing cross currents of left, right, new Labour, old Labour, she keeps alliances with all camps. In opposition, for example, she did not oppose the privatisation of the railways, siding with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown against John Prescott and Brian Wilson. She was then shadow transport minister and came up with a plan that would have made drivers pay more. Blair wanted pre-election plans that offered no hostages to fortune, so she was reshuffled to the safer zone of overseas aid.

Her move may have had more to do with her publicly expressed view that cannabis should be legalised. Those comments became the first of many “gaffes,” as the media calls them. Gaffes are blunders. But Short rarely opens her mouth without knowing exactly what she is saying. You can tell by the way she slows down when she wants to say something controversial. It doesn’t slip out. When the roof caves in she shrugs it off: “I’m only saying what’s right… It’s party policy… It’s the press exaggerating…” As over cannabis and her opposition to bombing Iraq, what she says is often accepted later as good sense.

But the no-nonsense image covers a thin skin or maybe, more attractively, a vulnerability. She reacts violently to criticism or even suspected criticism, as I discover. I probe her support for the Rwandan government, suggesting that because the Tutsis were genocide victims, the present-largely Tutsi-government, is allowed to do what it likes.

“I was told you knew something about Africa, but that’s just ignorance. You’re biased,” she says. I say that the Rwandans are occupying half of Congo in the name of self-protection but it is making them unpopular, perhaps even sowing the seeds of another genocide. The storm mounts. “You just want the government to fail. It’s people like you and the French who create genocides in Africa. That’s disgusting. What you’re saying is completely wrong, you haven’t done your homework.”

We are squashed in the small plane, our eyes nine inches apart. Hers are burning, her jaw is set. Is she testing me or teasing me? Or does she want a fight? I pick option three and that does it. “I don’t want to go on with this interview. Go on like that and I’ll have you thrown off this fucking plane.”

I glance out of the window. We are somewhere off the West African coast. Her staffers, who until now have helpfully joined in the interview, suddenly find interesting matters in their papers. Then a twinkle appears in the corner of her eye. Richard and Rwanda have become another trip joke along with the duty frees and my chewing gum. Whenever Rwanda is mentioned, she says to her staff: “Make sure Richard gets a copy of that, won’t you. He needs educating.”

Will she resign in a similar explosion if Blair joins America in a full-scale attack on Iraq? She might. She likes to give the impression that she is not a politician, let alone a minister, but an ordinary rather impetuous person with strong principles, who could have been a teacher like her father or sister. It is a useful image for a politician, and there is some truth in it. She has already resigned twice from the Labour front bench: in 1988 over the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and again in 1991 over the Gulf war. Her low tolerance levels on issues high on her agenda make it unlikely that she could be minister of anything other than foreign aid. British voters like the idea of aid but do not want to know the details. Short, like other fierce Labour women who have been in charge of foreign aid: Barbara Castle, Judith Hart and Joan Lestor, is the conscience of the party. With her seat in cabinet, Short helps keep part of the left on board, but Blair knows that if he bends too far to Washington she will jump. She is near the edge now. In April, Blair apparently told her to keep quite on Iraq.

So, after five years in the job what is Clare Short seeking to achieve with foreign aid, and how far has she got? “I’m trying to build an international development system that will systematically reduce abject poverty until it is no longer part of the human condition. We are living in a time when this is achievable. We’ve got the capital, the knowledge, we need to build that aspiration into the system and get it more organised…”

These days, talk of ending poverty leads to just one place: Africa. There are pockets of poverty in other continents but sub-Saharan Africa is almost all poor and much of it is slipping back. Even African states not affected by war or bad government are not managing to keep their economic growth rates ahead of population growth.

The international left tends to blame all of Africa’s ills on the past crimes of colonialism and today’s “crimes” of the IMF and World Bank. Short denounces European colonisation but does not blame it exclusively for Africa’s poverty. Colonialism, she says, “was political domination in order to extract minerals. Obviously that abused Africa and normal development didn’t take place. Plus there were the colonial boundaries.” Her thesis is that development has not yet arrived in Africa. After all, it is quite a recent phenomenon even in the west.

“With globalisation and the mobility of capital, knowledge and technology, Africa can achieve what Europe and America did.” She describes the development of East Asia in the 1970s and 1980s as “the most successful model for development that humanity has ever generated. Governments invested in education and got the biggest reduction in poverty for the largest number of people that humanity has ever experienced.” It is a model Africa must imitate. She rejects the claim that Asia’s development was only achieved behind high tariff walls. “They found access to markets and that’s why international capital went there, to use the cheap and educated labour.” She believes that Africa can only develop through being integrated into a competitive global market.

Short reserves special scorn for those who see globalisation as the new evil. “Globalisation is now part of the economic and political history of the world. It’s like asking whether you are in favour of the industrial revolution. The Luddites were opposed to it and we understand why. But saying ‘I’m against globalisation’ is not interesting. The fact is that we have it and what is interesting is how we manage it.”

It could, she says, “lead to greater marginalisation and inequality or we could use it to uplift the poor. To do this, countries have to make themselves attractive to inward investment by instituting a reliable banking system, effective laws and so on.” Her analysis of the roots of poverty and the principles of its alleviation differ little from those of her Tory predecessor, Baroness Lynda Chalker. And the mission statement of her Department for International Development (Dfid) is almost exactly the same as that of Chalker’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA). Yet it feels as if there has been a sea change.

After the disappointed idealism of the immediate post-colonial period, the efficacy of overseas aid has come to be doubted over the past 20 years. The right said that it distorted markets and created dependency. The left, including in some countries receiving aid, said it was designed to open poor countries to plunder by big corporations. Meanwhile, donor countries funded infrastructure projects in poor countries such as building dams, roads, or airports to try to kick-start development. But most project aid was random, uncoordinated and often benefited donor countries more than recipient ones.

Then in the 1980s the answer, according to the rich countries, was market liberalisation. The “Washington consensus” declared that countries were poor because their economies were state-run. Remove tariff barriers and subsidies, free the exchange rate, sell state assets and everyone will benefit. In some places like Poland and parts of East Asia it worked. In most of Africa it did not. Domestic industries were wiped out by cheap imports, people who depended on wages and savings were reduced to penury and the elite, who had plundered the state enterprises in the first place, sold them to themselves at knock-down prices and got even richer. Poverty increased.

The IMF and World Bank eventually acknowledged that in some places their polices were squashing the people they were supposed to be helping. In the process-just as Short was taking office-a new consensus began to coalesce around a single aim for aid: ending poverty. The techniques and priorities are still disputed but the targets are clear: basic education and health, empowerment-meaning people should, as far as practical, participate in development decisions, and women particularly should be educated. Development should also be “sustainable,” meaning it should not depend too much on the outside world and should not damage the environment. The new consensus agreed that the free market is fine but it must be managed. Governments of poor countries must be committed to sound economic policies and must “own” them; that is, design and sign up to them.

In recognition of the new paradigm, the IMF renamed its structural adjustment programmes, poverty reduction strategy papers and insisted that they must be drawn up by recipient countries. The IMF even published a handbook to guide governments on how to design them. Aid is now, in theory, given with a strategy behind it agreed by all donor count-ries. According to Short: “The old system of aid was about finding a project to support; the motive was charitable. But the minute you pack up you leave no sustainable reform behind you… It’s pointless pouring money into a local project in a state that is going the wrong way… Let’s stop using aid for nice well-meaning projects and let’s use it to create a competent state.”

There is also a recognition that the responsibility of the rich countries does not stop at sending aid money to poor countries, especially if they are also collecting the same amount in debt repayments from them. According to the new paradigm, the rich countries must relieve the burden of debt and help remove the trade restrictions and tariffs in their own markets that stop the poor from earning a living.

Short has become one of the most effective exponents of this new development paradigm and has won many plaudits for it from around the world. She has allies among the Scandinavians and the Dutch, countries which have mainly met the UN target for rich countries to give 0.7 per cent of their GDP in aid to poor countries. But the world’s biggest economies-the US, Germany, Japan, and France-were cutting back when she took office in 1997. As a share of rich countries’ GDP, aid has fallen by a third in the last ten years. According to Oxfam, if all those countries had kept their promise to spend 0.7 per cent of their GNP on aid, $114 billion more would have been transferred from rich countries to poor.

Britain is now leading a rearguard action against this whittling down of aid. Short’s enthusiasm for more and better aid is shared by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In opposition, she had pushed for the overseas aid ministry to be made a separate department with a cabinet post as it had been in previous Labour governments. Robin Cook, the shadow foreign secretary, objected but Blair backed Short. By next year, British aid will rise to ?3.6 billion, marking an increase of some 60 per cent since Labour took power (at 0.33 per cent of GDP Britain is still only mid-table for rich country donors). Moreover, Blair, more than any other senior western leader, is personally committed to the African renaissance. He is the western midwife of the New Partnership for African Development, the African leaders’ plan to turn the continent round. Brown-who is an ally and possibly a protector-also agrees with Short’s analysis of how to spend aid and relieve poverty and backs her interventions on debt at the IMF and World Bank.

Short not only won a new department and brought money and enthusiasm, she also brought a new intellectual rigour. Lynda Chalker had been aid minister for more than 10 years but had combined it with being foreign minister and foreign affairs spokeswoman in the House of Lords. She was exhausted by travel and dealing with difficult governments and had seen her budget steadily shrink. She had few allies in government and her ODA was subject to pressure from bigger departments, such as trade and defence. This led to debilitating scandals such as the Pergau dam scheme in Malaysia where a dam was added as a sweetener to a British arms deal.

Short laid out the new paradigm of aid and development in two white papers, making poverty reduction the exclusive aim of British aid. She wanted targets and tests to make sure it was working and adopted the targets agreed by a UN conference on development in Copenhagen in 1995. She also pushed hard to get these targets adopted by the UN’s development summit in September 2000. They became the Millennium Development Goals, committing the world to achieve the following by 2015: to halve the numbers of people living in extreme poverty; to reduce by two-thirds the numbers of children who die before the age of five; to cut by three quarters the number of women dying in childbirth; to establish universal primary education; and to make progress towards gender equality, especially in education.

The new minister untied aid, removing the long-standing principle that British aid should be partly spent on British goods and services. Nor was aid to be a lever of foreign policy. She recounts with amusement how when she started to change things, other ministries would write to the foreign office to complain. It took them a while to realise that Dfid was now an independent ministry. This was emphatically illustrated when Short objected to the recent sale of an air traffic control system to Tanzania. In the face of opposition from the entire development lobby, Tanzania spent ?40m on it-almost exactly the sum it had been granted in debt relief. Blair and the department of trade ruled in favour of the deal. Short promptly withheld ?10m of British aid to Tanzania.

So Clare Short knows better than the Tanzanian government what kind of air traffic control system it requires. And in her words, she wants to create “a competent state” in poor countries. This is benign imperialism. Herein lies the central dilemma of aid, unresolved by the new paradigm as it was by the old ones: development aid is often wasted without stringent conditions or the engineering of political reform; yet when such good behaviour is imposed from outside it rarely takes root.

Short rejects the neo-imperialist tag-she is, after all, the daughter of an Irish republican (and sometimes plays the Irish card to deflect anti-British criticism). The new paradigm has at least refocused aid on governments. Many donors had responded to the attack on aid by diverting funds from governments which were seen as inefficient and corrupt and channelling the money to NGOs. You can’t ignore governments, says Short. They create the environment in which aid is spent. You have to work with them and try to improve them. Poverty, she points out, is worst where states have failed altogether. Hence her mission to rebuild weak states. “Of course, you have to deal with corruption but arresting a few people won’t deal with it where the institutions are baggy and weak. Strengthen the ministry of finance to make it transparent, audited, accountable. Then you need customs reform and a revenue authority and proper tax collection so we move towards making the institutions of the state work.”

It is less newsworthy than handing out emergency aid in war zones and disaster areas. But the latter is often a distraction from the main purposes of aid. Short has even suggested that aid may keep wars going. On the basis that there can be no development without peace, Dfid has got into conflict resolution and, more dangerously, into training African armies. In Sierra Leone, Dfid and the ministry of defence are retraining the army to make it accountable to civilian political authority and ensuring that soldiers are properly paid. It could go horribly wrong; the Sierra Leone army has disintegrated several times already. Conflict resolution leads on to the causes of wars. Many African wars are maintained or even driven by economic interests, such as diamonds in Sierra Leone and Angola. So Dfid and the foreign office have pushed for the certification of diamonds to try to dry up the funds that keep the wars going.

Short is pulling the chains of half a dozen other ministries: defence on peacekeeping and arms, trade on tariffs, agriculture on the subsidies that protect rich world farmers, the treasury on debt relief, education on pinching teachers from poor countries. It’s just joined-up government, smiles Short sweetly.

On this trip, she is going to Sierra Leone for just 24 hours to make a speech about anti-corruption. She has to time it right or it will look as if she is interfering in May’s presidential election. Short is a big hit with the market women of Freetown. Last year she funded a micro credit scheme for them that got them going again after the war. They are women she can relate to: tough, no-nonsense mothers who have to be quick and physically strong. They gather in a school, dressed in their gaudy wraps, and dance and sing their anthem to which they have added the chorus: “Clare Short is coming. Clare Short is coming.”

I never thought she would do well in Africa. Africa is a place of good manners, where greeting and thanking is more important than saying what you mean. A certain graciousness is expected from important visitors. Lynda Chalker bestrode Africa like the baroness she is, regal, bossy, charming. I thought Short’s bluntness would upset people. But explaining that she is a rude blunt European, apologising and then going on to be rude and blunt seems to have done the trick. She has made enemies in Africa, but not by accident.

Will she succeed? Measuring success in the business of making life better for the human race isn’t easy. The Millennium Development Goals will almost certainly be missed. Currently, three big interlocking UN conferences are trying to push the agenda along-with 11th September providing extra impetus. The recent meeting on trade in Doha got a better deal for poor countries than most expected. In March in Monterrey, a meeting on financing development aid squeezed an extra $5 billion out of the US, plus pledges of more European money. The third conference, in Johannesburg in June, will look at sustainable development-a chance for aid optimists like Short to push their line.

Their biggest task is to shift the Bush administration from its belief that aid does not work. US aid is paltry, the lowest in proportional terms of the rich countries (although some claim that it gives more than Europe to poor countries through sucking in their emigrants and exports). US aid is also highly politicised. It is used to prop up political allies like Israel and Egypt, as part of the war on drugs as in Colombia, or as bribes to get countries to join its war against terrorism. Short is convinced that she can persuade the US that the secret of effective aid has been discovered. “You can’t ignore the Americans,” she says ruefully. “You need them on board.”

But even if there was more aid could poverty be ended? Outside Africa, the answer is probably yes, but Africa’s problems will take decades to sort out. Short believes that the civil wars that cripple Angola, Congo and Sudan, the three biggest countries in Central Africa, are ending. That is possible but not likely and there are wars waiting to erupt in Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast. Recent evidence from the elections in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda and Madagascar indicates that it is hard for African rulers to stay in power and rule accountably, transparently and according to the precepts of the poverty reduction strategy papers. Governments like Kenya’s sign up to fine principles to stay friends with the aid donors but under internal political pressure they revert to busting the budget to reward key constituencies.

Another problem in Africa is that there is no clear dividing line between goodies and baddies. Uganda, for example, is a donor’s favourite. It is good on health and education and receives more than half its budget from aid. But Uganda is not a democracy and its ruler, Yoweri Museveni, is becoming increasingly dictatorial. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, is misruled by Robert Mugabe but technically it is a democracy. Nigeria is one of the worst countries for just about everything but because it is rich, powerful and newly democratic, the donors give it a chance.

The truth is that all but a few African states are shells, maintaining the appearance of government but in fact owned and run by powerful networks accountable to the president. In some countries, like Sierra Leone, Somalia, Congo, and to an extent Nigeria, the state scarcely exists. The task Short and other supporters of the new paradigm have set themselves is to help rebuild these states. It will be a long slog and begs the question of how it can be done in a way that is not simply an outside imposition. The “ownership” idea is right, but is still an illusion. The IMF’s poverty reduction strategy handbook gives the lie to the idea that governments of poor countries design their own programmes-none of the programmes are home grown. All set up the same targets and use the same aid-speak. The benign dictatorship of donors persists. Some recipients do believe in the policies but most carry them out because they want the aid and then drop them at the first opportunity.

To make “ownership,” “empowerment” and the other buzzwords of the new aid paradigm meaningful would require a big change in how the world is run-for example, basing power at the IMF and World Bank on population size and not economic might, as some radicals in the developing world want. China and India would then run the IMF and the World Bank. What would Short think of that?

Read the original article from the publisher.

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