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The Future of International Development

Article by Andrew Howard and Phoebe Griffith

September 15, 2006

The background

Over the last decade attitudes towards development have changed significantly. The short-term ‘aid for commercial gain’ thinking of the past has been replaced by a much greater focus on development as a long-term concern enveloping a wide range of issues such as conflict prevention and resolution, trade and investment, and environmental protection. There has also been a major shift away from the old paradigm that development policies should first and foremost promote economic growth, with the realisation that development must be based upon the three pillars of growth, sustainability and justice. Only when poor countries are helped to tackle head on illiteracy, high infant mortality rates and corruption, to name but a few social ills, as well as develop economically, will they be able to break free from the poverty that blights their people’s lives.

The challenges

While highlighting the achievements of the first term, the Secretary of State focused attention on some of the challenges that still need to be faced:

· The Department of International Development

For far too long, development issues have been seen merely as an add-on to seemingly more important issues, such as trade and industry. Short commented on how back in 1997 the DTI was angered by her newly constituted department telling its people how to go about conducting British trade. She added that this attitude is also reflected in the fact that the international development is still viewed as the obvious portfolio of a female minister of lowly rank. Short was adamant that much more needs to be done to build capacity and make international development central to all other policy areas.

· Security

The nature of conflict has changed dramatically. Wars now occur more often than not within rather than between states. Civilian populations are often targeted deliberately by the warring factions leading to massive refugee flows over international borders. Rapidly rising Third World population figures are also putting great strains on natural resources, causing irreparable environmental degradation. Short explained that we need to have a greater awareness that the underdevelopment of much of the world caused by these and other problems is the greatest threat to our own security. She argued that the 20 per cent of the world’s population living in OECD countries can never feel secure while the remaining 80 per cent live in abject poverty. The challenge facing us is to find new international tools to tackle these new security threats.


Clare Short expressed forthright views on several areas of policy in which positive change and progress are possible.

· Raising DfID’s profile

Short noted that her department has come a long way in raising its profile within the government. She was rightly proud of the fact that her team won the argument over the merits of debt relief and that subsequently British trade representatives are now happy to stand out from other trade delegations on the issue. She also mentioned the joint pool of resources that DfID, the Ministry of Defence and The Foreign Office now share in relation to security issues. Yet the lack of parliamentary time dedicated to debates on international development and the still lingering feelings within government that development issues are not of the highest priority shows that there is still much scope for improvement.

· Resources and political will

When challenged with the claim that the instruments at the government’s disposal – such as debt relief and the global fund for HIV – are meagre in scale and do not appear to match the problems faced by Africa, Clare Short robustly refuted it and highlighted the progress made at the recent meetings in Genoa between G-8 and African leaders. Leaders such as Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olesegun Obasanjo brought with them their own initiatives for solving their continent’s problems, which tied in with the Prime Minister’s own commitment to Africa. However, Short did admit that there is a general overestimation of what a tool such as debt relief can achieve alone. Stating that aid is also required, she went on to explain that a high quality of aid to Africa, untainted by mixed motives, is imperative if Africa is to see the 7 per cent growth needed for it to achieve its international development targets.

Touching on the topic of conflict prevention, Short pointed out that while she is positive about the prospects of success in Sierra Leone, there is a need to strengthen international tools to deal with the increasing number of regional and civil conflicts in Africa and elsewhere. However, resources need to be matched by a greater political will and determination on all sides if success is to be achieved.

· Strengthening institutions

During Labour’s first term, the positive linkage of development and security issues was a major achievement. But what of plans for the security sector in the second term? Short commented on several areas of policy. Recently, an extensive World Bank study entitled Voices of the Poor pinpointed disorder and corruption as major concerns of many respondents in developing countries. To tackle these problems, the Department of International Development has begun to work closely with the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. Army reform in Sierra Leone and Indonesia, and the training of peacekeepers in Africa, are being promoted to help increase accountability and prevent coups. Reform of justice systems is also high on the agenda. It is estimated that 40 per cent of African private wealth is held overseas. Through the gradual establishment of the rule of law in Africa, the causes of this capital flight – political corruption, tax evasion, conflict – can be overcome and this money can instead be invested in the countries themselves. By strengthening state institutions and giving poor countries the tools to help themselves, we can therefore prevent the descent into chaos and anarchy that has blighted so many countries and help the poor to build modern, effective states.

· The role of NGOs

Following the mayhem that ensued at the G-8 summit in Genoa, there is clearly a need for a new form of dialogue between international institutions and NGOs.

Controversially, Clare Short suggested that lobby groups should not waste money by travelling to international meetings to demonstrate, but should instead use the resources more efficiently to fund campaigns and hold their governments to account at home. She commented that such financial waste was unacceptable considering that thousands of Africans sell all they have to make the treacherous journey to Europe to find a better life. Short also said that NGOs should become accountable to their own publics in order to become more effective.

Short called for a more nuanced understanding by northern NGOs of the role they can play, a theme taken up in a recent Foreign Policy Centre pamphlet by Michael Edwards entitled NGO Rights and Resonsibilities: A New Deal for Global Governance. Often northern NGOs dominate the debate to such an extent that they are regarded as constituting civil society and representing southern NGOs and peoples. However, civil society is an amalgamation of many groups that needs to be nurtured in all countries as a prerequisite of establishing effective modern states. Short therefore suggested that northern NGOs should play a more supportive role, transferring skills to southern NGOs and encouraging them to speak for themselves to the world. Only through a more equal dialogue can poor countries make their own voices heard.

· Increasing public engagement

During the 1980s, public interest in development issues dwindled. Due to the corruption and chaos endemic in much of the Third World, there developed among Western publics a feeling that the money they donated to charities was going nowhere. However, over the last decade there has clearly been a globalisation of human concern – what one might call a global ethic – about development issues. This has been brought about by the empowerment of ordinary people through the mass media and the subsequent acceptance of the reality that we all depend on each other. This growing interdependence was graphically illustrated by the Asian financial crisis, which directly affected businesses in the UK. There has also emerged a growing anger at the injustice globalisation has caused. However, Clare Short noted that within the UK, despite the growing public support for development issues, there is still the belief that charity constitutes development. To change this opinion and engage the public directly, the Labour government is taking many positive steps: DfID now advertises everything it does; it is also working with the Department of Education to introduce lessons on citizenship to the national curriculum; and it is undertaking tracking surveys on attitudes towards development issues. Through this work, development policies which involve not only DfID and NGOs, but also the public at large, will emerge and flourish.

The prospects of success

Despite the many positive developments over recent years, Clare Short’s objective assessment was that the situation of the world’s poor will worsen before any improvements are seen. She commented that in order for the UK to take a leading role in reducing world poverty and spreading the benefits of globalisation, more money and political commitment will have to be forthcoming. She also added, “I wish my department did not have to exist”, lamenting the fact that such a vast scale of development assistance is still required by much of the world at the beginning of the 21st century.

This was the first in a series of Foreign Policy Centre lectures by government ministers and their special advisers.

For details of future lectures, please see our website at, or contact Phoebe Griffith on 0207 401 5358.

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