The aid question

There are challenges to the 0.7 per cent target, but the debate should be wider than a number.

The latest challenge to Britain's 0.7 per cent aid spending target offers little that is new. While the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee Report marshals a fairly balanced argument against the imposition of arbitrary spending targets, what we see in the press is the by-now familiar "shoot from the hip" critique of the aid budget as bloated and ineffective. The result is an escalation of calls for an extension of the austerity agenda to the world's poor - no surprise there... On the other hand, the fact that a debate which directly affects hundreds of millions of lives is reduced to percentage points should be a cause for concern, no matter which side of the aisle you sit.

Support for the 0.7 per cent largely transcends all three major political parties in Westminster yet there are and always have been question-marks about the robustness of the target and whether unequivocal support for it is actually the best political strategy for those committed to sustaining the UK commitment to aid. It is, after all , a 40-year-old target, based on an idea of how much rich countries should cough up to meet the financing gap facing poor countries. It bears no relation to current needs (which are still significant and are changing) nor to rich countries' ability to pay (which is also significant). The target has all too often focused the attention of campaigning organisations on the quantity over the quality of development assistance and diverted much-needed political capital away from demonstrating the role that aid can play.

That said, the UK's international development budget affects more people than any other government budget. The idea we cannot afford it is nonsense and the UK aid pound works incredibly hard on behalf of the world's poor, often in very difficult circumstances. If we want to make a change in the world then the taxes we pay towards development are probably the surest way to do that. tThat shouldn't be underestimated for either its moral value or economic and diplomatic benefit. Plus it gives us a mechanism to hold other countries to account and ensure that the fight to end poverty is a global endeavour.

Solutions to global problems are far from simple. If money alone was the answer to global poverty then we'd be in a different place now. It takes more than just schools, vaccines and roads to deliver sustained progress. You also need more private investment, more effective teachers, more technology, innovation and better-quality leadership. Spending money on development without involving developing country governments and their citizens in decisions about how to spend it will only create unsustainable systems and unsustainable solutions.

Effectiveness and value for money are vital components of the aid conversation; it can never be a case of quantity over quality. The government's creation of an aid watchdog has started a process of cultural change and it has been met with a serious effort from NGOs to show results and value for money. Beyond the headlines the House of Lords committee's critique is reasoned but remains behind the curve of current action. Continuing critical thought about the future of Britain's aid relationships is essential, but political and media attention must find a way beyond the narrow prism of 0.7 per cent if the debate is to wake up to the challenges now framing global development.

Dr Alison Evans is the director of the Overseas Development Institute

Refugees in Ethiopia following severe drought in the Horn of Africa. Photo: Getty Images
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage