Britain’s international development budget is under attack from the Tory right. Labour needs to defend it

Boris Johnson has thrown his weight behind a plan to pull the UK out of the international aid regulator and allow the government to use aid for prohibited military purposes.

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In July 1997, Clare Short, Britain’s first secretary of state for international development, told parliament that eliminating global poverty, while an “affordable and an achievable” aim, was “the single greatest challenge the world faces”.

She outlined a vision that would use Britain’s “complex history – all the bad and good of it” – to try and bring human security and dignity to the 1.3 billion people living below the poverty line.

For Labour, this has always been about morality as well as pragmatism: we will never turn our backs on problems that we have at times helped to cause. We will instead do all we can to create a world for the many, because it is the right thing to do.

I share Clare’s vision, which has done much to improve life for many of the world’s poorest people. While acknowledging the fascinating recent debate about the difficulty of measuring progress on poverty reduction, it remains a fact that the Department for International Development (DfID) has become a global leader in international development. It has made a tangible difference to the lives of many of the world’s poorest people.

So it is distressing to assume my new role as shadow international development secretary at a time when Tory politicians are competing with one another on who can tear down the department fastest.

They are circling around the Prime Minister and they know that their leadership prospects are buoyed by appealing to a tiny number of Tory members who are so obsessed with ending aid that they’re willing to turn their backs on the 800 million people currently living in hunger.

Last week Boris Johnson threw his weight behind a plan to scrap DfID, to pull the UK out of the international aid regulator and to redefine aid to allow the government to use it for military purposes that are rightly prohibited at the moment.

Even Penny Mordaunt, the current Secretary of State for International Development, has been at it, repeatedly undermining her own department’s purpose. Most recently, she reportedly told colleagues that the country’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on overseas aid was “unsustainable”. She has spent departmental time coming up with cynical initiatives to send signals to Tory members. One day, it’s a proposal for profits from private investments to be counted towards the aid budget (a move that many aid watchers interpreted as a clear fiddle to double count aid spend and which her own head of policy could – understandably – not explain). The next, it’s calling for UK aid to be spent on building battle ships for the Royal Navy to “take pressure off a stretched fleet”.

Former International Development Secretary Priti Patel banged her drum a little too hard when she was forced to resign for secretly proposing that UK aid could go to the Israeli military for operations in the illegally-occupied Golan Heights.

Distracted by feathering their own leadership nests, these politicians are simply not up to the monumental and interconnected challenges the world faces, such as eliminating poverty by 2030; reversing trends in inequality; and preventing the collapse of the climate which would destroy millions of lives, hitting people in the Global South the hardest.

If we genuinely want to face these issues then we can make a start by refocusing aid spending back on poverty reduction and introducing, as Labour has promised to do, a new dual goal for aid spending to also reduce inequality.

Inequality levels have reached such grotesque levels that, according to Oxfam, 26 individuals now own as much wealth as the poorest 50 per cent of the world’s population, thereby concentrating both economic and political power in corporate hands. We must fight these structures that perpetuate poverty and degrade the environment.

A Labour DfID would seek to redistribute power and resources, and we would start by putting an end to using aid money to privatise basic services overseas. We would use the aid budget to embark on a major programme to build strong and universal public health, education and energy systems overseas. We know from our own experience in the UK that free-at-the-point-of-use public services is the most humane and cost-effective way for counties to support everyone in society, regardless of their income.

We would also seek to work more directly with those people on the front lines of the fight back against poverty and injustice. Last year Labour set out its plans to increase funding for grassroots women’s groups in the global south, and bring civil society to the forefront of our international development work.

But genuinely dealing with the root causes of poverty requires a cross-government approach to ensure, for example, that trade policies do not undermine developing countries; and to clamp down on corporate tax avoidance and other illicit financial flows, which costs nations in the global south 50 per cent more then they receive in aid, more often to the benefit of multinational corporations.

Yet, the Tory faction that seeks to strip away UK aid is not only undermining our power to reduce poverty but also normalising the minority view that Britain should not be using 0.7 per cent of its wealth to support the world’s poorest.

It almost goes without saying that as a country we will of course want to do things in our own interest. But we must recognise that it is right to use a fraction of our wealth to help bring about a world where all humans are granted the basic dignity of healthcare, education and nutrition. Some things should be for the global, rather than the national interest.

Labour is a party of internationalists that believes our humanity is collective and universal. And the reality is that when we take on the root causes of poverty, inequality and climate change, when we empower people around the world and make their societies fairer, we also make our planet safer, more just and more sustainable for all life on earth.

Dan Carden is shadow secretary of state for international development, and the Labour MP for Liverpool Walton.