Thursday, 3 October 2013

Time to change the record on aid? Some reflections from the UK Labour Party’s annual conference

By Hannah Corbett

For the majority of party members, lobbyists and media attending the three main political party conferences in the UK, domestic issues take precedence.  Given the current climate of austerity and falling living standards that’s not surprising.  But does it also reflect a broader lack and quality of debate on international issues in the UK?  Is this having a negative impact on public support for UK international development policy? And what role do research organisations like IDS have to play in addressing this problem?

On the fringe

Discussions about international issues are mostly confined to the well-trodden fringe circuit at all three of the UK’s main political parties’ conferences. You’ll generally find them at the end of a long corridor in a too hot/too cold pre-fab conference room, with the odd cheese straw or vegetable samosa thrown in to enliven proceedings.  What I imagine a UN side event to be like (although I’ve never been).

At Labour Party Conference this year, taking place in Brighton right on IDS’ door step, there were some genuinely interesting conversations about international development happening on the fringes.  Margaret Hodge (MP and Chair of the Public Accounts Committee in the UK Parliament) and Ivan Lewis (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development) spoke engagingly about the central role of tax in tackling inequality at home and abroad at the Christian Aid and Action Aid event. And ODI’s Executive Director Kevin Watkins talked about what a new set of global development goals might look like in the context of the UK at the Labour Campaign for International Development’s (LCID) reception, which was timely given the recent announcement from the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that whatever replaces the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015 will be applicable in all countries, not just developing ones.  

What more aid?

But why do these conversations remain for the most part on the fringes?  And that’s not just at party conferences, but in parliament and the media as well.  The issue that generally hits the headlines or takes the main stage in the UK when it comes to international development is aid.

Aid undoubtedly continues to have an important role to play in UK international development policy.  But talking about the UK’s role in the world solely in terms of whether we do or don’t spend 0.7% of GNI on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) misses the bigger picture. And when polls and surveys, including IDS’ own UK Public Opinion Monitor, report that public support for aid and international development is dwindling, it’s hardly surprising given that debates on these issues have become stuck in an ‘aid’ rut. 

Changing the conversation

 So how do we change the conversation and re-engage the UK public with these issues?  Earlier this year, IDS joined forces with the International Broadcasting Trust to host an event that brought together UK parliamentarians with representatives from INGOs, academia and the media to try and answer exactly this question.  The group came up with a number of recommendations, two of which are particularly interesting:
  • We need to talk about the world as it is not as it was – this means less about aid and more about the role of emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China, about high growth rates in Africa, about the positive impact of growing domestic tax revenues in developing countries.
  • We need to link stories about poverty at a national and a global level and highlight the ways in which people’s lives are connected.

This is where the international development research community and organisations like IDS can help.  From the role of rising powers, to improving taxation systems in developing countries, to shining a light on the impact of the food, fuel and financial crises on communities across the world, to the increase in use of food banks in high-income countries – this is knowledge that we have at our fingertips. 

But we need to be willing to engage in these debates and by working more closely with the media and politicians actively seek to reframe the narrative.  At a time when UKIP are growing in popularity and with concerns about increasing isolationism being voiced, it’s critical that we start telling a different story about development that isn’t just about aid and that resonates more clearly with those outside of the party conference bubble.