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Responsibility to the poor: a matter of justice, not charity

Article by Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP

October 13, 2010

The last decade or so has been a golden period for international development, including efforts by the UK. Indeed, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently judged the Department for International Development under Labour’s stewardship as having gained “national and international recognition for its professionalism and ability to deliver its aid programme effectively”.

But in opposition, it now falls again to the centre-left to develop ideas for delivering global justice in a political and policy context changed, fundamentally, in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008.

That global economic crisis accelerated and further highlighted changes and challenges that politicians and policy makers are still struggling with. We need to do more than just have the right arguments about moral duty and common interest to explain to the public why we should continue funding overseas aid at a time when we are being asked to cut budgets at home.

We now face not only a question of balance sheets, but a question of shifting global balance.

And in this changing context, international development must be driven by more than a quest for value for money. It must also be driven by values.

Market failures

The “charitable” approach of the right to international development appears becalmed alongside narrow concepts of national security and commercial interest, a continuing hostility to the role of the state, and a superficially empowering but ultimately laissez-faire approach to the role of civil society.

The whole world – rich and poor alike – is still living through the consequences of the food, fuel and financial crises: collectively, the greatest market failure of the last 60 years. And we are already being faced with the growing impacts of climate change, the greatest market failure in human history.

A further effect of the financial and economic crisis has been to highlight and accelerate the rise of Asia. Countries like China, India and Vietnam have grown enormously in recent years. The G20 has arisen to take on new responsibility in this changed global economic and political context. China in particular has undergone a remarkable transformation from poverty to significant global donor. India has experienced remarkable growth. Many African countries have shown growth despite the global recession. Many countries are rapidly graduating from low income to middle income status.

Yet this “rise of the rest” masks a complex and conflicted world – where billions remain in poverty and are denied their basic rights.

Twenty years ago, more than 90% of the world’s poorest people lived in low-income countries. But as Andy Sumner of the Institute of Development Studies has revealed in ground-breaking research this month, a staggering three quarters of the world’s poorest people now live in so-called middle income countries like India and Brazil – what he calls a “new bottom billion”.

At the same time, others, like Paul Collier, have emphasised the importance of focusing on the “bottom billion” who find themselves in the bottom fifty or so states affected by fragility and conflict.

What some have called a “new geography of poverty” poses fundamental questions for the future of international aid and development.

These new times demand not old orthodoxies, but new responses, grounded in a fundamental belief in justice and universal human rights.

It is easy for politicians to say that, since India has a space programme, we should have no concern for the millions of Indians still living in abject poverty, or indeed those in any emerging middle income country. The reality is, of course, far more complex.

Inequality remains a crucial factor in this new world. Despite the reduction in poverty associated with growth in countries like China and India, and despite the improvements to child welfare around the world, inequality remains pervasive on a global scale. As Kevin Watkins pointed out in a recent article for the Guardian, the impacts of inequality can be stark:

Inequality remains the most potent destroyer of opportunities for education. In Nigeria, the average male from a wealthy, urban home can expect on average about 10 years of education. Meanwhile, poor girls in rural northern Nigeria average less than six months in school.

It is not only a matter of social justice that should concern us about high levels of inequality, but also the impacts in terms of sustainability, security and stability – both for those people directly affected, and globally.

So we need to ground new approaches to the challenges posed by state fragility, the new geography of poverty, and extreme inequality in clear, progressive principles.

A responsibility to the poor

In the same way that the responsibility to protect has driven us to think about how the world responds to genocide and crimes against humanity, beyond narrow notions of state sovereignty, I believe we must now develop a responsibility to the poor to guide our actions in international development, lest many of the poorest become ignored behind national borders and statistical categories.

What is our responsibility to one girl who lives in abject poverty in India, versus that of another who lives just a few miles away on the Bangladeshi side of the border?

A responsibility to the poor must also go further. It must drive us to higher standards across all our broader actions. Rich countries are often part of the problem. Unfair international rules of trade, like agricultural subsidies and restrictive intellectual property rules; irresponsible arms exports; weak controls over international companies which engage in bribery overseas; not clamping down on stolen assets from developing countries, which are then laundered through western financial institutions and tax havens; and climate change driving emissions that hit the poorest the hardest – all should be treated with the same seriousness of purpose as we have shown in our fight to protect the aid budget and its poverty focus.

We must continue doing what works well in the poorest countries. Well applied, targeted and effective aid can and should be used to achieve progress on challenges such as health, education, water and other basic services.

But we also need new approaches when it comes to the over 60% of the poor now living in middle income countries, alongside the traditional aid, debt relief and other approaches Labour successfully used in government to deliver results.

A global “big society” is not enough to deliver – in the same way that it is not sufficient here in Britain. We cannot simply take a laissez-faire approach to citizen empowerment, urging everyone to do their bit. We should make no apology for saying that where market failures exist, the state must step in alongside the citizen. And when those market failures are global – as in the case of climate change, or extreme poverty and inequality – then global action must be taken.

At the same time, we must recognise that action by governments alone is insufficient. Our model must be one of true partnership between the state, citizens and other actors, including the private sector.

We must fight against any suggestion that Britain’s role in international development should slip back into well-meaning but colonial-style charity for poor people, with policies driven by public populism, political expediency and narrow national interests.

The great Archbishop Desmond Tutu, retiring this week at the age of 79, once exhorted us, in a plea for humanity and the recognition of both moral and physical interdependence:

My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.

In this more unequal, hotter, unstable and interdependent world we cannot now settle for charity. We must recognise our responsibility to the poor and continue the long march to justice.

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