Cutting development spending now would be self-defeating

In a globalised and interdependent economy, we all stand to benefit from development spending.

While the Chancellor was delivering his Autumn Statement to a packed House of Commons, I was visiting immunisation services at a rural health centre on the foothills of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I saw for myself how UK development funding was being spent on the ground. Rural women had travelled with their children for miles to this remote clinic so that they might, through a simple vaccination, avoid life-threatening disease. The Autumn Statement provided an opportunity for some to ask the Chancellor to stop ring-fencing funding for international development. “Charity”, they say, “begins at home”. This has an obvious resonance in the current economic climate. However, it is a message which fails to recognise the value of development funding which goes beyond a simple handout and makes it an investment not just in the future of the otherwise impoverished but in our own future too.

The UK has a proud record in international development and can rightly claim to be a global leader in promoting effective, cost-efficient and innovative support to countries in the developing world. From the Labour governments of Blair and Brown, to the current coalition, international development is one of the areas of policy that we can be most proud. UK funding is helping to save lives, eradicate poverty and build healthy, economically vibrant communities across the world. We all stand to benefit from that in this globalised and interdependent economy.

I am here in Tanzania to participate in a global health partners’ forum being hosted by the Tanzanian Ministry of Health in partnership with the GAVI Alliance. The purpose of my visit is to meet parliamentarians from around the world, from both donor and recipient countries, and to foster greater political will for the introduction and sustainability of vaccine programmes to prevent pneumonia, diarrhoea, cervical cancer and rubella. Whilst here, we will take part in a series of debates and workshops and will meet with global health leaders, technical experts and civil society organisations. We are visiting urban and rural immunisation centres and clinics and meeting the very people that the UK taxpayer is helping to support through the availability of vaccines. Their gratitude for the UK’s contribution to GAVI for this life-saving initiative is humbling.

The theme of the conference is to explore ways to accelerate results, innovation, sustainability and equity in the field of immunisation. Taken in isolation, pneumonia - one of the leading killers of children under five in the developing world - is responsible for more than 1.3 million child deaths every year. By utilising a unique market shaping model, the GAVI Alliance aims to help avert 500,000 deaths by 2015 and 1.5 million future deaths by 2020. The story is much the same with diarrhoea, where effective vaccines are being used to tackle the leading cause of diarrhoeal disease. Diarrhoea is estimated to kill around 450,000 children every year - that’s nearly 1,200 children every day. These deaths are preventable and UK support is playing a vital role in making that happen.       

GAVI ought to need no introduction, nevertheless, it remains the too often unsung heroine of unified global action on development. Earlier this year I was back in Ghana, the country of my childhood, to witness the dual roll-out of pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines against pneumonia and diarrhoea.  GAVI was once again a welcome partner to local action on immunisation.

GAVI is a truly unique organisation. It brings together civil society, vaccine manufacturers, Governments and the private sector to use innovative finance mechanisms to secure significant development outcomes. One of these mechanisms is the International Finance Facility for Immunisation (IFFIm), which I worked on with Gordon Brown during my time at the Treasury. GAVI has since become a byword for the successful and cost-effective delivery of international development, to the extent that David Cameron last year committed a further £814 million to support GAVI’s work.   

For those who continue to doubt the benefits of a sustained, long-term commitment to development funding, I would suggest they look at Tanzania to see the difference that UK funding is making to individual lives and communities. This difference is being repeated across the world. The cost of preventable disease, not just in human terms but in its destructive impact on overall health costs and wasted economic potential, is glaringly obvious in a country where women will walk miles with their babies on their backs to ensure a healthy life for a child. Our hard-earned taxpayers' money helps guarantee a healthy future for more children the world over. As a result, our world becomes a better place and the lives of those who share it with us become safer and more prosperous. That is surely worth a line in the Autumn Statement.

Former Labour cabinet minister Paul Boateng chairs a meeting of global health leaders in Tanzania.

Paul Boateng, a former British high commissioner to South Africa, MP, cabinet minister and civil rights lawyer, is a member of the House of Lords and a trustee of the Planet Earth Institute

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.