Kate Osamor, Corbyn’s shadow international development secretary, speaks to Yohann Koshy about aid, globalization and the shadow of empire
‘I never thought I’d be here. I assumed [being an MP] wasn’t for people like me,’ Kate Osamor says, as we sit in her parliamentary office on a snowy February afternoon. This isn’t a politician’s false modesty: Osamor’s scepticism towards Westminster politics was firmly based on family experience. Her mother, Martha Osamor, is a black feminist activist who was controversially blocked from standing for a parliamentary seat in 1989 by the Labour Party apparatus.
The Osamors gravitate to the left of the party: the campaigning, internationalist faction that has long been marginalized by the people in charge. When Kate, elected as an MP for the North London constituency of Edmonton in 2015, nominated fellow traveller Jeremy Corbyn to stand as Party Leader, she helped trigger a process that would undo that marginalization and, to the horror of rightwing MPs and pleasure of Labour’s grassroots membership, allow their side to slowly take back control.
She now sits as Shadow Secretary for International Development, a role that would see her in charge of Britain’s overseas aid and development department were Labour to win the next general election. But opposition has been no cause for idleness. She has been using her tenure to lay the groundwork for a new approach to the Department for International Development (DFID), announcing last November that DFID would be tasked, for the first time, with the twin objectives of eradicating poverty and reducing economic inequality under her watch.
This would mean focusing not just on improving figures in host countries but on the global dynamics of economic power. It has been backed up by Jeremy Corbyn who, at the Commonwealth Parliamentarians Forum last week, said that Labour will ‘work with tax authorities in developing countries….to stop [financial] looting’ and ‘look at the terms under which foreign investment flows around the world’.
She has set up an international development task-force, staffed with big names like the economist Ann Pettifor and Asad Rehman, Executive Director of War on Want, which has been soliciting evidence from civil society groups across the Global South; they have received more than 50 written submissions, which will help make up a policy Green Paper to be published later this month. The British aid debate tends to get stuck in an unproductive standoff between rightwingers who want to cut the budget and liberals who draw moral capital from defending it without thinking critically about what it is for. Osamor’s approach – looking at the economic system that underpins the differences between rich and poor, both between and within countries, and focusing on accessible ideas like ‘peace’ and ‘solidarity’ – has the potential to cut through this impasse.
We spoke about the meaning of ‘development’, the shadow of empire and why it’s finally time to challenge the current model of globalization.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
New Internationalist: ‘Development’ is a difficult concept to define. What does it mean to you?
Kate Osamor: You’re right that it is hard to define. When you’re speaking to someone who hasn’t got much initial interest in what development can do for someone, how do you bring them in? For me, it’s explaining that we are global citizens. We should want the same for others abroad that we have at home. We have universal healthcare, education, good transport, a job where you’re paid a reasonable amount – all these things are being challenged by the current government but there is still a state that takes some responsibility – but countries we are seeking to support don’t have those in place. We need to be mindful that we don’t say it’s because they are corrupt; we need to look at how the system is corrupt.
So should we change the word ‘development’? I don’t think so, but other government departments – like transport – do seem more obvious. DFID is on the front-line in so many more countries than any other department; we’ve got the agency so why not use it?
Setting up DFID as its own department, outside the Foreign Office, was a hallmark New Labour project. For a while it was considered a leader in its field. Now DFID staff are saying that ‘morale is at all time low’ after the tenure of former Secretary of State Priti Patel, who appears to be ideologically opposed to aid.
First and foremost we should listen to DFID’s workers. If they’re losing morale and don’t feel respected then that is a bad thing. Regardless of what we think about how it’s changed there are many people who still rely on it. As long as that relationship [between the government and host nations] is there, then DFID’s level of expertise and governance skills need to be respected because it’s still renowned.
But we could do better. International Development is becoming, like other departments, a political football during Brexit. The government’s approach to international development right now is having to placate hard-line Brexiteers on their backbenches as well as the right wing media. That’s unsustainable. Then you’ve got noises about the government trying to re-merge DFID with the Foreign Office. I agree with departments working together and policy coherence, but there shouldn’t be a merger.
DFID is, however, criticized for engaging in activity that doesn’t look like poverty alleviation. It has an arm called CDC (formerly Commonwealth Development Corporation) which recently had its funds increased to £6bn (USD$8.3bn). It’s basically a private equity company that focuses on reaping a profit from commercial projects in the Global South. Is this something you would look at changing?
So there is an increasing reliance on the private sector within DFID to do their work. I have no issue with the private sector per se – there are times when they can do things that others can’t – but the way DFID runs at the moment is that it encourages big private sector organizations to come forward – with their lawyers and big logos and crowding out competition – and that means that the excellence of small, local and nuanced [talent isn’t used]. In terms of the CDC, I would like to see DFID push it harder to put poverty reduction and development impact front and centre, and to become a progressive finance institution.
Labour has said we will champion poverty reduction, but also set a twin goal for DFID for the first time – to reduce inequality. So if we’re using an organization that hasn’t got that as their mission statement, or can’t prove that that’s what they’re doing, then it’s going to go against what I’m trying to achieve.
You speak a lot about colonialism and empire. How do these ideas influence your politics?
Look at the Commonwealth and its 53 member states. The imbalance between those states is a product of colonialism and the British Empire. There is supposed to be an ‘equal’ Commonwealth, and we all celebrate it, and the Queen is there for us all. But look at how the current government is rumoured to be approaching next month’s Commonwealth Summit – Whitehall civil servants are saying they treat it as ‘Empire 2.0’. And if I look at my constituents in Edmonton who come from the Commonwealth, they can just about get one of their family members over to the UK if they’re from Nigeria or Ghana. Now, they all love the Queen! They believe in her. But she is supposed to be the head of the Commonwealth for them all equally: the truth is that the colonial past affects all those relationships.
Why is it that that when it comes to the Home Office or border control that West Africans, or those from Asia, are treated differently? The bottom line is if you’re coming from [another Commonwealth country like] Australia or South Africa, or if your grandmother is British, then you’re let in. I have no problem with that. But why is it, if I have a constituent from Nigeria then they can’t even get someone here to study? And they have very little access to the so-called amenities that are here. We need to talk about the past, because to this day people are still paying the price.
The crisis over sexual exploitation in the NGO industry has led some to ask whether neo-colonial attitudes persist in that sector.
I was fortunate enough to go on a few visits recently. What I’ve seen is that the directors or CEOs in the UK are older white men. Then the country director, sometimes, is from the country in question; and as you go lower down the pecking order, you’ll find local people doing the job. But if it wasn’t for those people in lower positions then the Country Director and the CEOs would not be able to do their jobs. I'm born and bred in Haringey and I represent [the constituency] next-door in Enfield, and I still don't know all the nooks and crannies!
Part of the problem is a lack of respect for local intelligence and local communities. It’s about much more than sexual exploitation – it’s about aid agencies failing to redistribute power or challenge its abuse. There can be this attitude of, ‘We’re here to give you crumbs, and you need to listen to us.’ Everyone has skills, and outside intelligence needs to complement local intelligence. But at the end of the day, it’s about respect and standing shoulder to shoulder.
Cuba is an interesting example of a poor country with a brilliant development record. Cuban doctors operate across the world and give free medical training to students from the Global South. Here’s a leftfield idea for a new approach to helping others: send NHS doctors abroad to do similar work!
I used to run a doctors’ surgery and my doctors would travel to Cuba to see how the Cuban doctors would work. They came back all geared up. They were great people; for them, it was their little taste of socialism!
Look, Cuba is far from perfect, and development must go hand in hand with human rights, but in terms of sharing and learning, that’s what you should do: you go where there’s excellence and learn from each other. It’s about sharing instead of the UK saying: we’ve got the best system and we know how to do aid, when, as you say, there are other countries that are a lot poorer that do know how to respond to disaster because they have a true sense of solidarity.
When I went to Barbuda [after Hurricane Irma], the island has about 2000 inhabitants, and they told me about how Venezuela had sent planes to help evacuate them. Venezuela has its real issues of course – but no one knows about that aspect. This is what solidarity is about, regardless of who you are, and departments like DFID should be outward-looking and open to new ideas.
Twenty years ago New Internationalist interviewed Clare Short, the first head of DFID…
Ah, Clare! She’s cool. A lot of people are telling me now when I tell them my ideas: ‘Yeah, Clare tried to do that…Yeah, she tried to do that too!’
In the interview she says that globalization is here to stay; the question is how to make it work in the interests of people. Ten years after the 2008 crash, that model of globalization seems less stable.
Exactly. We've had enough time now to finally wake up to the effects of the crash and to know what globalization looks like. Now we need to say to ourselves: we need to put some brakes on inequality, we need to put some brakes on global warming; we need to look at the global economic system. I think globalization has exposed that if we don't fix these things, it will be out of control. In the Caribbean, for example, they are the least polluting nations in the world but the most affected by climate change.
One way to protect workers in the south from the effects of globalization is for them to form unions to protect their pay and working conditions. Could DFID play a role encouraging or strengthening unions in other people's countries, or is that too political?
We need to be mindful of the fact that DFID has an opportunity to be in spaces where other departments wouldn’t be able to get into: you're able to get into difficult warzones, is it your place to be talking about unionizing workers?
It depends how to go about it. What do you organize around? If, in a given situation, you could convince a government to pay for, at a subsidized rates, materials for farmers then that isn't saying directly that there should be collective bargaining but what it's showing the government that if all these farmers are successful then this amount of money will come back in. How do you, in a creative way, show that the collective voice is not only stronger for the masses but the management as well? DFID is in a unique space to be able to do that.
Tell me about your political education. Your mum has been described as an ‘unsung hero of Britain’s black struggle’.
My mum came here from Nigeria in the 1960s. She came here because she was invited and she came with a different perception of what the UK would be like. She learned very quickly that it was very racist and cold. There wasn't space for her to be a young woman. It was very openly against black people. I was around that from a young age even if I didn't understand it at the time.
She got involved in community politics and started working at the [Tottenham] Law Centre. I would see her assisting people and that was in the early days around immigration and stop-and-search. Lots of young mothers would come saying things like my son has been arrested, he's been beaten up, he's in Tottenham Police Station. She had four young children and she would take us to the police station with placards and we would all shout for the person to be released: ‘Free Tony!’ or whoever it was.
She got involved in the [Labour] Party and quickly realized that it wasn't allowing the voices of black people to be heard, so she and many others formed Black sections. The people of Vauxhall wanted her to stand as their candidate for MP but the Party – well, Neil Kinnock -- didn't want her. So I never thought I'd be here. I assumed it wasn't for people like me. And it is still a bit prickly at times. But I know I've got to stay where I am because it's all that I know and there's no other place for me to be.
As the Vauxhall incident shows, the leftwing of the Labour Party has been on the side-lines for a while. It must be a satisfying moment now.
There's space for us. There's space to talk. Even talking about 'austerity'. It used to be a fringe thing to call yourself 'anti-austerity' and now the Labour Party is saying it. It's just timing. I've been able to come in and say the things I say without there being a challenge.
It's also helpful, given your remit on development, that the leader’s main interest is internationalism.
Internationalism is him. That is Jeremy. He's guiding a lot of what we're doing as well. I've known him since I was very little, so it's very easy for me to text him and say, 'What do you think about this?' and he'll say, 'Yeah that sounds like a good idea...’.
Because he was a councillor in Haringey when you were growing up?
Yeah, my mum and him were really good friends! It's weird. It’s nice, though. It’s a nice story.
Illustration: Sophie Mo