Labour's 'patchy' content

The government needs to be radically more open and transparent about aid spending, writes Shadow Int

Yesterday we had a fantastic international development debate.

We were privileged and humbled to welcome two very different, but equally impressive, international guests to the stage.

Exiled Burmese human rights activist Zoya Phan made a dramatic and emotional speech. Holding aloft heavy iron shackles, she said:

"These shackles were smuggled out of a prison in Burma. This is what those monks who have been arrested will be forced to wear while they face torture, including electric shocks. I asked last year, I ask again and I will ask again and again until we have freedom in Burma. Why isn't there a United Nations arms embargo against the regime?"

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is the man who has led his country back from the brink of the abyss following the genocide of 1994. He made a compelling and convincing speech that included a passionate plea for rich countries to open up their markets and tear down their tariff barriers. He backed David Cameron's call for a cross-Party worldwide campaign for Real Trade.

During the debate I enjoyed hearing from many of my friends from Project Umubano, the social action project in Rwanda that I helped organise this summer. 43 Conservative volunteers worked on a huge range of development projects in sectors such as health, education, governance and sport.

One of our volunteers, Dr David Tibbutt, spent a moving fortnight in a very remote health centre, where he and a colleague worked 12-hour days and saw some 500 patients - some of whom, almost unbelievably, had never seen a doctor in their lives.

In my speech I set out plans to help more British health professionals follow Dr Tibbutt's example and put something back abroad. I announced that a Conservative Government will establish a new Health Systems Partnership Fund. Worth £5m a year to begin with, it will help fund international placements for British health workers but also support strong, enduring links between the NHS and health systems in poor countries.

I called for the Government to be radically more open and transparent about our aid spending. Well-spent aid can work miracles - but as with everything, we need to keep an eagle eye on it to keep standards high. DfID's website under Labour is almost completely useless. Check it out for yourself: compare the patchy content on the DfID website (www.dfid.gov.uk http://www.dfid.gov.uk/> ) with the wealth of information - financial statements, partnership agreements, evaluation documents, contacts for local auditors - that is up on the Global Fund's site: (http://www.theglobalfund.org/en/ http://www.theglobalfund.org/en/> ). And I also called for DfID to follow the example of the World Bank and set up an anti-corruption hotline on the front page of its website.

Finally, no one should underestimate the importance of conflict prevention and resolution. Over the last year I've seen, in Darfur, Burma and Rwanda, the devastating effects of conflicts, past and present, on the lives of ordinary people. Tackling this scourge must be a top priority for everyone who is passionate about the cause of international development.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.