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Cameron's values will impede UN progress

Why Cameron's conservatism will get in the way of the UN millenium development goals.

David Cameron, Getty images.
David Cameron, Getty images.

Yesterday saw the news that Ban Ki Moon has asked David Cameron to chair a new UN committee tasked with establishing a new set of UN millennium development goals when the current ones expire in 2015.

Britain will have the opportunity to maintain the global leadership on international development that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown provided summit after summit during Labour’s time in government. It would be churlish not to welcome that – but I fear Cameron’s conservative values will get in the way of the progressive solutions needed to meet the development outcomes we all want to see. Here’s five reasons why.

First, perhaps in anticipation of a backbench backlash, a government source was rushing to deride the current goal’s focus on basic education and health indicators. “What about new goals to give people property rights or economic rights?” said the source. There is much value in debating the key role economic development plays in lifting people out of poverty, so long as that is not a euphemism for advocating the failed neo-liberal economics of the past. I can send them a copy of Stiglitz’s Globalisation and Its Discontents if they like – detailing the devastation caused by the IMF’s structural adjustment policies and how trickle-down economics doesn’t work – but it would be tiring if we had to cover that ground again. Thankfully, the rest of the world has already moved on. The G20 has replaced the "Washington Consensus" with the "Seoul Consensus" which recognises the importance of both the market and an active state in ensuring sustainable economic growth.

Second, those remarks present a false choice – economic development and advancements in health and education are not mutually exclusive. China’s achievement in lifting 700 million people out of poverty came not only through the economic reforms they made in the 1980’s but the huge investment in human capital made throughout the 1970’s. Numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of achieving health and education goals on economic growth - tackling malnutrition could add 4.7 per cent to global GDP, low infant mortality rates can add 3.4 per cent to a country’s growth, whilst improved education can add 2 per cent to growth.

Third, this apparent ignorance masks a bigger problem – they just can’t bring themselves to back public services, despite the essential role they play in delivering health and education outcomes. They refused to back public services over private provision in their green paper on development and are making plans to roll out a voucher scheme in Kenya that subsidies private schools. India is currently drawing up plans to universal health coverage modelled on our own NHS, and yet this government is doing nothing to help them. Elsewhere the UK is halving our funding to budget sector support – the very aid that helps countries build their own health and education systems by giving them the funds required to recruit and retain teachers, doctors and nurses. Around the world more and more countries have put themselves on the path towards universal health coverage – any new development goals that do not prioritise strong public services will be out of touch with this emerging consensus.

Fourth, key to funding strong public services is of course strong tax revenues. To their credit DFID are supporting over twenty countries to develop the capacity of their tax administrations to increase tax collection. But that is undermined by Osborne’s watering down of the UK’s anti-tax haven rules in last month’s budget. The OECD estimates poor countries lose three times more to tax havens than they receive in aid each year as multinationals shift profits made in the former to the latter, and ActionAid estimate that these new rules will cost poor countries £4bn a year. How can Britain have the moral authority to draw up new development targets when we allow our own companies to deprive countries of the money they need to meet them?

Finally, there is growing recognition that any new goals must explicitly target inequality. Whilst the goal to halve proportion of people on less than $1 a day is likely to be met – a laudable success largely down to the China and India economic success – a "new bottom billion" are at risk of being left behind. On current trends it will take more than 800 years for that bottom billion to achieve 10 per cent of global income, and a Unicef study shows that only a third of the countries that have reduced national rates of child mortality have succeeded in reducing the gap between mortality rates in the richest and poorest households. It is no coincidence that the country that has made the most impressive strides towards reducing inequality in recent years – Brazil – is governed by a social democratic party that has rolled out an ambitious social protection program, Bolsa Familia, that has cut poverty in half. Given inequality rose so dramatically during the Thatcher years, and given last month’s ‘millionaires budget’ that saw pensioners take a £3.5 bn hit, can we really believe Cameron will put equity at the heart of the new goals?

Given the world's likely failure to meet many (if any) of the current MDGs, the next set of goals could hardly be more important. They must not be rendered obsolete from the start by clumsy right-wing dogma.

David Taylor is chair of the Labour Campaign for International Development.