You may have missed it. But it was one of the defining moments in the 2017 election campaign – and it happened before the party manifestos had seen the light of day. Responding to demands for an end to Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of our national income on overseas aid, Theresa May drew a line in the sand. “Let’s be clear,” she said, much to the disappointment of a vociferous anti-aid lobby, “the 0.7 commitment remains and will remain.” It was her first manifesto pledge.
Against a backdrop of fiscal austerity, why did a Conservative Prime Minister defend a spending commitment to the world’s poorest people?
The answer to that question can be traced to one of Gordon Brown’s most resilient legacies – a deeply-rooted, all-party consensus on Britain’s role in international development. First as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister, Brown established the UK as a global leader in the fight against world poverty. He was the strategic architect behind a series of reforms – on debt reduction, education, immunisation, and health – that changed the world for the better.
Not that you would know it from the reviews of his recent biography. Well-known debates have resurfaced, and old antagonisms have been given a new lease of life. There has been an overwhelming focus on leadership style, who-said-what-to-whom and when, and the well-rehearsed lines of partisan argument on ‘Blair versus Brown’. The New Statesman’s own review by Jonathan Powell (The Fatal Ambition of Gordon Brown, 17 November 2017), while providing an eloquent insider’s take, fits into this category. Domestic politics have trumped any coverage of issues at the heart of the UK’s record in leading global action on poverty. At a time when international cooperation on development, multilateralism and universal human rights are under sustained assault, it all feels desperately parochial and inward-looking.
What has been missed is Brown’s achievement, intellectually and strategically, in reshaping the international development agenda and establishing the UK as a global leader on poverty reduction. Whatever their differences in other areas, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown shared a commitment to development. One of the first acts of the New Labour government in 1997 was to establish the Department for International Development (DFID) led by the fiercely independent Clare Short. Under previous governments, aid had fallen to the historically low level of 0.2 per cent of national income, and international development was the remit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). All too often, the promotion of UK commercial and defence interests – including arms exports – trumped any commitment to poverty reduction.
The newly created DFID reset the agenda. Aid was untied from commercial exports and refocused on poverty reduction. Early public spending rounds were used to chart a course towards the 0.7 per cent aid target. The 2005 Gleneagles “Make Poverty History” Summit saw Gordon Brown and Tony Blair cajole world leaders, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) into pledges on financing for development that fundamentally changed the international development environment.
Debt reduction was a case study in the new politics of development. During the 1980s, African governments were crippled by debts owed to the IMF and the World Bank, for which there were no debt write-off provision. Countries like Zambia and Tanzania were spending far more servicing debts than on health and education. Brown relentlessly made, and in 2005 eventually won, the case for a comprehensive $130bn debt write-off through the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, releasing resources for social spending and economic recovery.
Leadership from the UK played a decisive role in other areas. UK aid underpinned the creation of the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, and Gavi, the global vaccines initiative which has saved an estimated nine million lives since 2000. An increasing aid budget also made it possible to support global initiatives aimed at promoting universal education, ending forced marriage and combatting child labour.
In a rare example of bipartisan politics, the commitment to international development survived the 2010 election. In the austerity budgets that followed, George Osborne held fast to the 0.7 per cent aid pledge, while David Cameron championed the Sustainable Development Goals – the ambitious set of targets for eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. More recently, the new Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, has disappointed anti-aid campaigners by making a forceful and passionate case for DFID’s leadership role in international development.
None of this is a cause for complacency. As Gordon Brown’s memoir makes clear, it took over a decade to build the foundations of a national political consensus on development. It would take far less time to weaken those foundations.
Some of the warning signs are already visible. The British public has a proven track record in generosity. Witness the extraordinary responses to humanitarian emergency appeals. The Disasters Emergency Committee received over £100m in 2017, enabling aid agencies to respond to hunger, violence and displacement in countries like Somalia, Yemen, Myanmar and South Sudan. Yet public support for aid is weakening in the face of sustained media attacks on aid effectiveness.
That trend is worrying, not least given the evidence on aid impact. The UK’s 0.7 per cent commitment has contributed to some of some of the most spectacular human development advances in human history. Child death rates and extreme poverty have been falling at record levels, and access to clean water, sanitation and education is rising. Aid can be made more effective with reform. But the story of what has been achieved is a good one – and aid agencies should be doing more to win the public argument.
We should also learn the lessons of the past. Diminishing the status of DFID by putting it back under the FCO, a “groundhog day” idea occasionally floated by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, is an unequivocally bad idea. The diversion of aid to support British trade and national security interests fit into the same category.
The debate on aid is ultimately a debate over Britain’s place in the world, our values, and our resolution in combating poverty and extending opportunity. It is a debate that everyone committed to multilateralism, international cooperation and the future of global Britain should care about. Ultimately, the 0.7 per cent commitment is about something more than finance. It is an expression of human solidarity, compassion and internationalism.
What makes the UK a great champion for development is a mix of ambition, practical strategy and – above all – political leadership in tackling the great global challenges posed by poverty and inequality.
There is no shortage of work to be done. Despite progress, some 6 million children still die before their fifth birthday – around half of them because of malnutrition. Pneumonia, which can be effectively treated with antibiotics costing less than 30 pence, is now the biggest killer of children globally, claiming two lives every single minute. In an increasingly knowledge-based global economy, some 250 million children and young people are denied the chance to realise their potential through education. The global humanitarian system has been stretched to breaking point by drought, conflict and displacement.
Acting alone, the UK cannot resolve these problems. What it can do is provide the leadership by example needed to catalyse action, mobilise coalitions for change, and develop multilateral solutions to what are global challenges. Gordon Brown demonstrated that Britain could punch above its weight on the international stage in advancing the interests of the world’s poor. His ambition has endured. And that extraordinary achievement deserves to be acknowledged.
Kevin Watkins is the chief executive of Save the Children.