Britain’s record on aid is badly tarnished. Here’s how Labour can restore it

14 December 2023 | Danny Sriskandarajah

Creating an independent development ministry was a signature first move of the Blair government in 1997, generating much-needed momentum in the global fight against poverty that lasted for more than a decade.

When David Cameron’s coalition became the first government in the world to legislate for 0.7% of gross national income to be spent on aid, Britain was seen by many as a “development superpower”.

Yet, after years of brutal aid cuts and the reckless maligning of development by politicians – among whom Boris Johnson is the most high profile – this status is badly tarnished. Keir Starmer and his shadow minister for international development, Lisa Nandy, will have their work cut out – not only to salvage Britain’s reputation on the world stage, but also to sell a vision of a compassionate, internationalist Britain to a sceptical domestic audience.

Many have speculated on whether Starmer in government would recreate an independent development ministry, and how quickly he would restore aid spending to the 0.7% level. Both of these would help hugely, but the real opportunity is to usher in a development system that is fit for the 21st century, and to bolster a new narrative that puts global solidarity at the heart of the so-called national interest.

An obvious starting point would be to focus aid on where it’s most needed, which happens to coincide with where most British people want it spent. This means stopping the use of aid as a foreign or trade policy instrument, or as a way to drive harmful privatisation of essential healthcare in lower-income countries. It is heartbreaking that up to a third of the aid budget is being used for housing refugees languishing in a failing system, rather than meeting humanitarian need in an increasingly fragile world. Starmer and Nandy would do well to recognise that there is relatively strong support among the British public for aid to be spent on supporting communities to rebuild after disasters and helping build strong public health services.

But aid itself is only part of the solution, and indeed the way that aid is framed may be part of the problem. Tackling the many crises the world faces – climate breakdown, inequality, conflict and displacement – requires a new world order based on mutual accountability and respect. This is no longer about a saviourist mission to help the “needy”; this is about working together in solidarity, and listening to countries and communities about how we can best support them. In situations such as Gaza, this will mean doing all we can to deliver a ceasefire that will matter more than providing the tiny amounts of aid getting through.

It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the people of Manchester is inextricably linked to that of the people of Mogadishu. People living in both places suffer when global food prices are pushed up by conflict, and when fossil fuel companies – whose lobbyists were once again out in force at Cop28 – are given free rein to maximise their profits at the expense of people and planet.

This year’s European heatwave is just the latest evidence that floods, storms and wildfires are becoming more common and more intense, and that climate breakdown is hitting closer to home. Oxfam research has shown an eight-fold increase in humanitarian need in the last 20 years as a result of weather-related disasters. It is the most vulnerable people who suffer most and will increasingly seek to move to safer ground – including by taking immense risks to cross borders and waterways. There’s no point trying to stop people in the last few miles of their desperate journey to the UK when we offer so little help in the first few miles. Development, climate and migration are no longer separate policy areas.

Tackling these issues requires governments to work together to dismantle the vested interests that block efforts to cut emissions. It demands governments stop trying to make refugees someone else’s problem and instead cooperate to help people who have lost everything. And it requires governments, including the UK’s, to stop pretending that we cannot afford to tackle the big issues and instead find innovative ways of raising funding – whether that be forcing polluters to pay, or addressing the economic anomaly that sees wealth taxed at a fraction of the level of income.

And it’s not all about money. Starmer says he is driven by his vision of a fairer world. He could help realise that by showing leadership in areas beyond aid – for example, supporting countries with debt relief by making private creditors that are governed by English law act in more responsible ways. Or by supporting calls for a new convention on tax that would slash the scope for tax avoidance. Tax abuse not only starves low-income nations: the UK loses an estimated £35bn in tax revenues a year too.

The last and perhaps most controversial piece of the development puzzle is reparations. Whoever forms the next UK government will have to respond to growing calls for the UK to pay reparations to countries and peoples exploited by the transatlantic slave trade. Only last week, Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, was in London arguing that her country was owed $4.9tn (£3.9tn) by slave-owning nations. There are some who would prefer to ignore such calls, but I hope this is a moment to look honestly and constructively at Britain’s legacy, and to find ways of forging new partnerships with countries – based not on the aid handouts that compound historical power imbalances, but on the pursuit of equitable development and racial justice.

Finding international agreement and getting domestic buy-in on such solutions would, of course, not be easy for a new government. But doing more on the world stage, and doing it more effectively, will help to build a safer and resilient Britain. And making the economic playing field fairer for everybody – a kind of global levelling up – is what Labour claims it has always been about. If they win the 2024 election, Starmer and Nandy will have the opportunity to re-establish their party’s progressive internationalist credentials for a new era.

This article was originally published in the Guardian on 13 December 2023. You can read it on the Guardian’s website here.