Wednesday 5 October 2016

Brexit Britain: a leader in peace, governance & growth?

Whisper it quietly: this new Government might not actually be all that bad. Amid the predictable sound and fury from many in the UK development industry, itself populated mainly by left-leaning voters who were appalled at Brexit, the actual emerging policy picture as regards the direction of UK development policy shows early promise. I’m told that NGOs at the Conservative Party conference this week were left slightly taken aback, having braced themselves for an ideological onslaught that never came.

Priti & Boris

First up was Priti Patel, DFID’s new boss and leading light of the Brexit campaign. She had a lot to say on the theme of the day: free trade. DFID’s role was to counter poverty, respond to disasters but also to create the conditions for growth. That she explicitly links the growth of markets to the UK national interest as a post-Brexit trading nation should not be held against her. It’s been the unspoken goal of Her Majesty’s Government since the creation of DFID in 1997. And the link to trade is also hardly new ground. One of the most progressive donors in the world today, the Netherlands, unified it’s trade and development Ministries years ago, arguably leading to greater coherence overall.

And on peace she had this:
“…we can and will play an active part in making our world a more peaceful and prosperous place”.
A bit thin on the ground for detail but nothing to especially dislike.

Then came Boris Johnson. And what a different Boris this was. Gone were the jokes, and the blatant political ambition. In came serious analysis which, by comparison to the soundbites of Patel, had some particularly positive pointers for those of us interested in effective interventions to support peace, responsive governance and justice in some of the most complex, fragile and volatile places in the world.

Development needs freedom

Boris was vocal and blunt in his rejection of the pernicious thesis that development was possible without openness, transparency and responsive governance. That is a welcome and direct slap down to the sort of thinking led recently by the Overseas Development Institute, and over which we have tangled before. Liberal freedoms were, he said, essential to growth that remained stable. End of.

In fact Boris went much further than that. He castigated the regimes currently re-writing constitutions to lengthen spells of unbroken power in Africa while citing directly the closing civic space that has resulted in NGOs being targeted by those governments at home. The link between closing civic space and fragility is well established, with Carothers' recent work being the latest to examine it.

Soft power?

Boris leaned heavily on the idea of British soft power as a means by which those freedoms being curtailed might be addressed. It was clear to me that he included UK aid relationships in that, but he also cited the BBC and other forms of influence around the world. It was possible, he argued, to marshal all of Britain’s collective influence to support openness as well as growth. (Britain's soft power is something that gets talked about a lot - I did an analysis of its true spread here)

Reasons for optimism

The centres of gravity in Theresa May’s Government have shifted radically. The Treasury has gone from one of the most powerful Departments to a weaker implementing arm of Downing Street. While DFID is now headed by a Secretary of State who is clearly aligned with an agenda on governance and growth which is backed by the more politically powerful Foreign Secretary. Left leaning NGO folk might not like the personalities but it’s not a bad set of alignments for a progressive development and foreign policy.

So – a good start in my book, if a little confused and light on the detail. Confusion, for example, could be seen by Boris’ reference to Ethiopia as a development good news story, with rising life expectancy and a £300m DFID programme.

Current events in Ethiopia may cast those statistics in a slightly less favourable light.

And, to address Brexit, both Patel and Johnson called for British leadership of the aid industry. Well, it is fair to say that over the years DFID has been a thought leader on peace and governance. It is also fair to say that the European Union’s development policies are frequently confused and incoherent. The European Union’s 11 million farmers and their political voice arguably led to the suspension of the Doha Round (the US directly blamed the EU for this) which would have done more for growth and poverty alleviation than all of the aid budgets combined. It was notable Boris Johnson directly cited British determination to restart that Round. Coherence between trade and development is not such a bad idea.

Ultimately Brexit has happened. We have a new administration in the UK. They face no meaningful opposition at home. So it’s just as well that, from what I saw this week, there is much to be optimistic about if you’re a peacebuilder.