At this rate, the UK’s aid programme will be gone by Christmas

The Department for International Development has become a lightning rod for rightwing anger. And with a new Conservative leadership race set to begin, its days may be numbered. But Mark Nowottny sees hope in ‘bold and fresh’ ideas from the Left.

Credit: DFID, Flickr

So the Conservative leadership race begins. With it comes the biggest threat to international development in this country in a generation. In all likelihood, UK aid as we know it will be gone by Christmas. A new YouGov poll of Conservative party members shows that 74 per cent now want the next leader to scrap Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income helping the world’s poorest. Unsurprisingly, the contenders are lining up to win their vote.

First, it was Penny Mordaunt telling the Cabinet the 0.7 per cent target was ‘unsustainable’. Then, Boris Johnson urged that the Department for International Development (DfID) should be shut down. Next, Priti Patel called for the UK to relax the rules and decide unilaterally what could be defined as ‘aid’. Now, Esther McVey promises to halve the aid budget, cutting £7bn. And over them all, the threat of Nigel Farage – perhaps the biggest aid sceptic of all – looms large.  

Moreover, new International Development Secretary Rory Stewart’s defence of UK aid may be refreshingly sincere, but it is already backfiring. As an outspoken liberal, supporter of Theresa May’s Brexit deal and a leadership contender himself, he has quickly become a target of Brexiteers’ ire. Together with his past candour about the shortcomings of UK aid, the risk is that the aid budget is further established as the lightning rod for that anger, becoming a focal point around which right wing populists energise their supporter base.        

What about using UK aid to support trials of a Universal Basic Income in developing countries?

In the past, it had been charities, NGOs, aid agencies and their supporters who had mobilised to make the case that aid works, and that it was worthwhile. Yet, a year on from the sexual exploitation scandals that rocked the sector, these same traditional guardians have been left weakened, untrusted by the public, and more averse than ever before to the political risk of speaking out. They find themselves in the unenviable position of defending the status quo of UK aid, warts and all, against insurgent campaigners looking for easy targets.

So as the leadership contest enters full force, expect the aid sector to fight its same old rear-guard action: to bolster Tory allies in the centre, while appeasing likely leadership winners on the party’s Right.

At a stretch, this strategy could feasibly delay quick changes to legislation or to DfID’s independence, at least until a General Election. But it will do nothing in the long-term to win the kind of refreshed public support for UK aid that is so badly needed. Reasoned evidence, thoughtful arguments and focus-group-tested human stories stand little chance against the quick slogans and manufactured outrage of populists on the right, deployed easily and amplified in the media, when they do finally chose to turn their full fire onto international development.

If UK aid is to survive then it needs to change and to be bold. Fresh ideas are needed. These are coming primarily from the Left right now. Many are already out there: Labour’s 2018 green paper, for example, pledged to fight inequality; to repurpose all aid spending to narrow the gap between the richest 10 per cent and poorest 40 per cent; and to deliver the UK’s first explicitly feminist aid policy. The Greens’ 2017 manifesto pledged not just to defend 0.7 per cent at a time of unprecedented global crises, but to increase it to 1 per cent. Imagine too a proper whole-of-government approach to global justice, to avoid the contradictory status quo in which Britain sells arms to Saudi Arabia and food and medicine packages sent to Yemen.

Other ideas are still emerging. What about curbing the worst excesses of the aid industry, for example, by ending the use of private, for-profit contractors, and capping charity CEO salaries at ten times the wage of the lowest paid employee anywhere in the world? What about using UK aid to support trials of a Universal Basic Income in developing countries? What about a global Green New Deal, asking the world’s worst polluting companies to pay a little more? What about helping countries regulate and reduce the ever-escalating material consumption that is fuelling planetary breakdown? What about DfID supercharging the fight to end tax evasion and avoidance by transnational corporations across developing countries’ borders, as well as by billionaires within them?

Across the board, these emerging ideas have one thing in common: they argue UK aid must be a lever to make the world fairer, and not just less poor. Justice, not charity. Ideas are needed, but so too are new spaces for people to shape policy, new research, new supporters, new stories and narratives, and new media outlets to make the case.

0.7 per cent and an independent DfID may be gone by Christmas if the Right have its way. But even as one order looks like it’s collapsing, out of the ashes there is emerging a newer, better vision for tackling the international challenges and injustices of the coming decade. It is time to start crafting it.

Mark Nowottny is a former political advisor on international development to Labour and to Kate Osamor MP. He has worked previously both for aid agencies and for a global civil society alliance.