Turning Britain Outward Again

Labour can offer a vision of an outward looking internationalist Britain by rejecting the Conservatives assaults on Foreign Aid.

Ahead of the Labour Party Conference discussion on ‘maintaining independent aid as a policy objective’; PWB explores the history and benefits of the UKs Foreign Aid schemes, and asks how Labour can position itself as the internationalist part of hope, writes Emily Stewart.

Before its recent merger with the Foreign Office to create the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the Department for International Development (DfID) had been praised as one of the most effective and transparent aid vehicles in the world. The merger was controversial because of the perceived risk of reducing the transparency and impact of the world respected department, and more recent developments will further worry supporters of DfiD and its historic work; as the Conservative party eye-up changes to the law on spending which will allow foreign aid to be used to finance things such as naval vessels.

For some time, ideologues in the Conservative party and their media allies have been keen to ‘renationalise’ the foreign aid budget. With the Government choosing to characterise the commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on aid as ‘handouts’, the aid budget has become the unfortunate victim of the oft-repeated trope that we should be looking after our own poor in Britain before sending a penny abroad. This framing is straight out of the Conservative playbook of pitting the most vulnerable in our community against one another. While the £14 Bn in foreign aid spending sounds like a lot; it shrinks into insignificance when compared to our spending on pensions or education.

In this simplistic view of foreign aid, the budget is treated like a zero-sum game, with finite resources to be spent at home or abroad. In reality, the budget of a country is a complex and moveable thing, and the needs addressed by the international aid spending budget are not the same as those met by the domestic budget. Money spent (such as on our contributions to the EU in the past), often comes back threefold in trade, soft power and opportunities.

Furthermore, the giving of international aid is not just a charitable act. It serves other functions which are very important to the donor country. And while overseas development aid can be seen as the embodiment of teaching someone to fish: give someone a fish and they eat for a day ,teach someone to fishthen not only will they eat but you may also gain a valuable ally and trading partner. Put simply, developed countries have more to contribute as a political and trade ally. Leaving aside these benefits, it is also right to argue that as the British Empire once covered a quarter of the world’s land surface, we have a duty to provide support to countries from which we have historically profited.

Positioning the UK as an outward-looking nation

One would think that the reputation of the UK as a reliable and honourable trading party would be of paramount importance as the Government seeks to sign a raft of new trade deals to plug the gap from leaving the EU. Seemingly this is not the case, as the furore over breaking international law (“in a limited and specific way”) has shown. Trade deals and international standing have apparently gone from essential, to “nice to have”, with the UKs actions prompting warnings from the US regarding future trade deals..

As the current Conservative government take an axe to the international standing of the UK, Labour as the official opposition has decisions to make as to what direction and alternative they will advocate. It is not an inconsequential issue for the British electorate, who consistently rank as some of the most generous and supportive of international aid, and rank it as among their top concerns.

The question being posed at Labour’s conference next week by Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Preet Gill MP, is broadly about the perception of Britain we want to convey. By positioning this question in a debate about foreign aid, the conference piece shows Labour’s awareness of the intertwined relationship between our international standing and our foreign and aid policy.

The time is right for Labour to ask whether to follow the 10 year Conservative journey into ever more distant isolationism and ‘me-first’ policies, or to remind the British people that they can rightly be proud of their traditions and values around giving. Labour can position itself as the party to reignite the British spirit of inclusivity and openness. These values can pave the way to forming closer and more harmonious relationships with our newest trading partners and our oldest neighbours, and help heal some of the divisions of the Tories posturing and antagonism.

Development aid as an investment in soft-power, relationship building and the creation of a platform through which UK interests can invest commercially and sustainably in developing economies, would seem to be much more in tune with the notion of a ‘global Britain’ than taking our somewhat deflated ball home to kick against the wall. Such an approach would imply a degree of strategic thinking thus taking into account the alternative – which is vacating the field to others and old-technology unsustainable growth.

Continuing the dedication to spending 0.7% of our GNI, should not be buried in Labours next manifesto. Instead, it should be a centrepiece; showing the Party’s commitment to an outward-looking and collaborative Britain. The previous Labour manifesto contained some encouraging policies on establishing a more dialogue-based approach to aid, and the establishment of a Social Justice Fund to directly support civil society activists in the global South. Basing any policy overhauls on the UNs SDGs was also a very welcome edition, but the next manifesto can go even further on how we make sure that the UKs internal consumption and production does not undermine the work that our development aid looks to support.

The Conservatives talk about a ‘Global Britain’, but having trashed so many of our relationships, they act to pull up the drawbridge. Labour can really deliver on that vision and remind the British people of our pride and pedigree in international solidarity and a global patriotism.

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