The Importance of International Development

'driving the long term change we need to build a more just world'

The following is a transcript of a speech to Action Aid, made by executive member Heather Staff, who is also a member of the Labour Campaign for International Development executive, on the importance of international development in the context of the 2017 election:

It is great to be with you, and I would like to take a moment to thank you for the continued work that you and other NGOs do in tackling inequality, changing lives and promoting justice.The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17.jpg

A march towards Justice not just a march towards charity. That principle has long been at the centre of Labour policy on international development. Seeking to lift people out of poverty to meet the sustainable development goals is about justice, whether that is tackling tax dodging, sexual violence, climate change or humanitarian assistance. So, when I sat next to Nera, a Bosnian forensics expert during a journey through Croatia and she asked ‘why would you help us’  I thought for a moment and simply said because it’s the right thing to do, the moral thing it is Just.

It was a simple statement born out of the belief that international development assistance is right and just, it encompasses so much more than just an economic handout. I have always been proud that Labour’s internationalist stance has seen people as far more than economic transactions and the human face more than just a statistic. Or to put it another way to understand both the value of economic development and welfare assistance.

Nera, was a female investigator who benefited from sponsored internships and programmes, she like so many young women needed an ‘out the box’ way of thinking that saw her value and the impact she and others could have in stabilising a nation wounded by brutal conflict. These programs are not quick fixes, they are certainly not election winners and they require long term policy commitment and financing, but they are beginning to bear fruit.

These are challenging times, with what seems like crisis upon crisis and a growth in a protectionist attitude that can appear to retreat policy into itself. Perhaps this is why we see policy proposals that reduce people to mere economic units and hint of changing definitions of what constitutes the world’s poorest as the conservatives seem to do.

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Policies that in the panic of Brexit, focus more on pure trade agreements than the human cost of doing so. Policies that would leave behind the world’s poorest and become patchy on rights, climate change agreements and international obligations. My concern for international development is that the poorest will get squeezed by a nation working out Brexit, and the economic cost.

DFID [the Department for International Development] is something we can all be proud of. When Labour established DFID as a cabinet level department it showed an understanding of the need for a government to accept responsibility for its part in the world. It's also why Labour has now promised it will take robust action to end the self-regulation of DFID private contractors, establishing and enforcing new rules to ensure aid is used to reduce poverty for the many, not to increase profits for the few. It is also why Labour will continue to support the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs].

I would hope that international assistance is so important that it should not be reduced to party politics. However, headlines from the Daily Mail and others calling for an end to international assistance, continue to add pressure to how parties respond. The lessening of justice and a focus on charity, the nervousness around the word inequality and a muddying of how we can help the world’s poorest, all leads me to feel concerned.

Talk of honouring climate change obligations yet a commitment to fossil fuels, talk of equality and women’s rights yet issues escalating domestically around rising food bank usage and rape clauses in the benefit system.

When I hear Priti Patel [the Conservative international development secretary] denigrate aid and inflate the myth that it’s consistently wasted or abused, I feel nervous.  When I view the conservative manifesto, and read the Conservative commitment to rewrite the aid rules, I feel nervous.

We have heard rhetoric like this before, around changing child poverty definitions, refugees and asylum seeker obligations, and I have to wonder if rule changes would also include using aid to support military equipment and weakening of a poverty reduction focus. It is hard to know since the manifesto contained very little detail on this.

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We need a Government and also opposition that acknowledges the importance of international development and the role of women in society. That also supports and listens to NGOs like yourselves.

I was recently in a meeting of Labour affiliate groups and was proud to see a proposal from the charity Open Doors adopted into the Labour manifesto [click here to read more]. This proposal saw ambassadors for religious freedom, and women’s equality as part of Labour's commitment, it also put human rights at the very heart of foreign policy and trade. These commitments led to a proposal to Reinstate the Civil Society Challenge Fund to support women’s associations and other civil society organisations and ensure respect for human rights, workers’ rights and environmental sustainability in the operations of British businesses around the world.

Although ending violence against women and girls has been a priority focus for all parties, violence against women and girls continues to be a global epidemic, affecting an estimated one in three women worldwide. In the UK, on average two women are killed by their current or a former partner every week. Under the Conservatives, over a third of all local authority funding to domestic and sexual violence services has been already cut. So, although I praise the work of the conservatives particularly William Hague on making this a priority with the UN, the cuts to services has constantly held back efforts to tackle violence to women domestically, which gives me little faith for international priorities.

There are more refugees and displaced people around the world than at any time since the Second World War, and yet we have seen a failure of Government leadership in responding to the refugee crisis internationally and domestically. I applaud the work of NGOs and faith groups who have worked so hard to tackle this crisis, even when short of financial assistance. As a Christian, I am extremely proud how churches and agencies like Home for Good have responded, however they should never have to take the strain because of a failing confused Government.

The lack of support for the Dubs amendment safeguarding child refugees and a confused policy around resettlement schemes have continued to show a failure in leadership. I completely agree with Dr Rowan Williams when he states all parties must resist any attempts at backsliding from international refugee law.

Labour will put diplomacy, conflict resolution and human rights, at the heart of Labour’s foreign policy. It will also require tough choices around what types of deals a Government will commit to with countries such as Turkey and the effect these have on the refugee crisis.

UKaid.svg.pngUK aid is something we can be incredibly proud of. We have helped millions out of poverty, saved countless lives when humanitarian disaster has struck, and empowered women and girls to claim their rights. That is a legacy I believe should be protected and built upon. Labour will defend UK aid, commit to 0.7% and ensure it is focused on tackling poverty. Labour also believes UK aid must be much more than just charity and DFID.

The concept of aid and support for developing countries must be one which extends across government.  It must be an integral part of our foreign, domestic and economic policies. Only then and only then will we be able to drive the comprehensive change necessary to eradicate poverty. Tackling poverty and helping women and girls to claim their rights is about a lot more than handouts. Capacity building and education will be vital in supporting women and girls to take on inequality and end violence. We need development principles embedded in new trade deals and we need the treasury to take a much more active role in clamping down on big companies which are dodging tax in developing countries, or routing all their investments via tax havens.

Aid saves lives and transforms lives. International development has the potential to be so much more than that. If we want a hopeful world we need to give hope and confront fear and inequality. For Labour, international development is about supporting the world’s poorest people, saving lives, helping the world’s most marginalised people and driving the long term change we need to build a more just world.

Heather Staff is a member of the Christians on the Left executive committee. She was speaking to an ActionAid hustings ahead of the 2017 general election.

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