Good, but could do even better?


Fresh from two UK party political conferences, Oxfam’s CEO Mark Goldring reflects on the UK’s role in the world.

My colleague Duncan Green, in his daily blog on Wednesday, asked what are the pros and cons of positive and negative campaigning? It’s a fascinating and frank reflection relevant for all our campaigning – and it reminded me of a thought I’ve been having coming back from the annual season of UK party political conferences.  We – charities, NGOs and so on – are always pressing politicians to do more. Politicians always
fear they don’t get credit for what they do. Who’s right?

Over the last two weeks I have chaired fringe events on inequality, foreign policy and taxation. And, far beyond the conference walls, things were happening that really did reflect our oft-repeated mantra that the UK has a vital role in the world.  Last Tuesday at the UN in New York, while the Prime Minister was talking about climate change, Development Secretary Justine Greening
announced another £100 million of aid for Syria, bringing total UK aid for the crisis to £700 million. And last Wednesday – also at the UN – eight more countries ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, meaning that it will come into force as the newest piece of international law in December.

Liberal Democrats as well as Conservatives have succeeded in hitting that 0.7% aid target for the first time, and have picked up the baton from the last Labour government in helping to lead the world to an Arms Trade Treaty.

Both events in New York are of course part of far bigger international efforts to bring relief, and peace, to the victims of conflict. But I think it’s also fair to reflect that they say something worth celebrating about quite a brave consensus that has emerged among British politicians in the last few years. 

When I last worked for Oxfam, as our director in Bangladesh in the early ’90s, it felt inconceivable that the UK would ever spend 0.7% of its wealth on overseas aid – though the campaign to do so was already more than 20 years old! And the UK was remarkably slow to ban landmines – despite the efforts of the British Red Cross and others, including of course prominent individuals like Diana.  How different it has been in the last decade or so when Liberal Democrats as well as Conservatives have succeeded in hitting that 0.7% aid
target for the first time, and have picked up the baton from the last Labour government in helping to lead the world to an Arms Trade Treaty.

Indeed the arms treaty seems part of a theme embraced by all the main parties. It may be sixty years since the UK was a superpower, but through good ideas and diplomatic energy (AKA ‘thought leadership’), it can have an influence on the world far greater than its share of global GDP might suggest.  And William Hague’s initiative to help prevent the scourge of sexual violence in conflict is as much an example of that as the Arms Trade Treaty.

Re-visiting Bangladesh last month after twenty years, I saw the impact of aid on the lives of the poor. Aid was certainly not the only factor in the progress made in recent decades, but a careful focus on the health, education and rights of the poor, alongside economic investment, have ensured that millions of people live longer, are healthier, better educated, go hungry less, and choose to have smaller families. And this is just an example of the development we see when effective aid and enlightened policies combine.

And yet this doesn’t seem a time to celebrate. Whether it’s the rising tide of disasters, the number of new conflicts, or the fact that 7 out of 10 people live in countries where the gap between the rich and poor has got worse, the challenge to build a world in which people can live in safety and dignity seems profound. The UK’s generous aid is not typical. And as Syria and
South Sudan painfully show, even when enough aid is provided, it is less easy to ensure that it reaches every person in need, and certainly less easy than to end the conflicts that create those vast needs in the first place. 

The UK’s contribution is not perfect – and never has been, under any government.

The UK’s contribution is not perfect – and never has been, under any government. The UK still has a mixed record on the coherence of policies that affect development, still short of a strong cross-departmental approach in which development objectives are given due prominence in trade, diplomacy and other policies – recognising the independence of humanitarian aid of course. And it has been MPs of every party, not just one, that have recently questioned the wisdom as well as the principle of selling so many arms to countries of ‘human rights concern’, which seems to jar with the Arms Trade Treaty’s high ideals.  And in my mind, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent criticism of the UK’s ‘extremely
small’ diplomatic presence in the Sahel
could be extended to a wider concern that the UK does not always give enough weight to some of the gravest crises in the world – the Central African Republic is a prime current example.

Should the UK do more or better? Well of course. And here are three examples at the top of my mind. Recent announcements are a good start, but the UK should do more to protect developing countries from multi-national companies’ tax avoidance – through a ‘tax dodging bill’ that every party should promise to enact if they win the election next May. The UK should do more to ensure its aid is and stays closely aligned to the globally agreed principles of effective aid. And the UK should do more to back up a positive global role on
climate change, with concrete steps here at home to move to a greener economy. 

In all these ways, the UK should do more. But that is more, above and beyond what it has already achieved, in everything I’ve mentioned above, and of course in becoming the first G8 country to give 0.7% of its wealth to help reduce poverty around the world. For all that, politicians of all parties deserve credit. Meanwhile, our job remains to press them and the rest of the world to do more, and not take their eyes off the ball. 

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Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring at the Malakal IDP camp, South Sudan, pictured here greeting Gwada Joseph, 27. Credit: Simon Rawles/Oxfam

Author: Mark Goldring
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.