Lisa Nandy on the UK’s future development policy under Labour

Duncan Green Events, In the news, Influencing

‘People know better than we do’, the opposition party’s shadow minister for international development tells the Overseas Development Institute. Duncan Green on what he thinks her first major speech in post potentially means for UK policy and for the “development cluster” of academics, think-tanks and NGOs.

This week, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Minister for International Development, Lisa Nandy spoke at the ODI think tank, her first major speech since she took on the role.  

Overall impression? She is very relatable, sensible, smart, listens to questions and then (shock!) largely tries to answer them. The questions were good too, reviving my faith in the UK dev cluster of academics, thinktanks and NGOs, which has taken quite a battering since the destruction of DFID. More on that later.

Some headlines and quotes from her initial presentation:

Any new government will have to mend the damage to its reputation and antagonism between EU and the South over human rights, Gaza and perceived double standards. She’s been to the Middle East a few times, is a former Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, and has been struck by the anger over European inaction on Gaza. That will have to involve the whole of government, not just the aid bit. For that you need a simple overall narrative – aka a ‘clear direction of travel’.

‘This is not 1997’. Her slogan for a future Labour government is ‘a world free from poverty on a liveable planet’, with a focus on poverty, climate and debt.

Big emphasis on the how, not just the what – ‘based on one word – respect’. Respect for partners, for the voices of those on the ground, including an ‘asset-based approach’ that focusses on people’s strengths, not what, in outsiders’ views, is missing. ‘People know better than we do.’

‘The abolition of DFID was “not a merger, just mindless vandalism”‘

The immediate task is spending development money on development, not letting it be raided by other departments for things like refugee and asylum-seeker costs in the UK.

Words matter. The abolition of DFID was ‘not a merger, just mindless vandalism’. She was very critical of NGO ‘poverty porn’ fundraising and hates the term ‘development superpower’.

‘The thing people most miss from the UK is not money, but thought leadership. Interesting. Prior to the mindless vandalism, I argued that there was a strong cluster of organisations doing just that in the UK, between universities, thinktanks and NGOs and their partners around the world. We need a strategy for reviving that, which is not just about lobbying on our specific agenda points, but thinking more broadly about how to recreate that network solidity in pursuit of a genuinely progressive agenda.

Which brings me to my question to her, which was about institution building. Most of the discussion was understandably on policies and actions, but they can be just as easily overturned when Labour lose power (as they will, eventually). What about creating institutions that could outlive a future Labour government? Thinking back to the 1997 Labour landslide, I identified the creation of DFID, the leading role in agreeing the Millennium Development Goals and subsequently, the legislation on 0.7% (not under Labour) as 3 examples of institutional reforms that made progress ‘sticky’ and harder to reverse.

‘Although she had lots of warm words about civil society organizations on the ground, she was much more cautious about INGOs… INGOs clearly have some bridges to (re)build there.’

On the future institutional shape of aid under Labour, her response was a guarded ‘watch this space’. But more interestingly, she contrasted those institutional reforms that were largely overturned after Labour lost power in 2010, like the Sure Start early years childcare network, to stickier innovations like the introduction of the minimum wage and civil partnerships, which became part of the fabric of UK society. Her argument was that the difference was ‘winning the argument with the public’ on the latter, although on reflection, I wondered if it was also that Sure Start entailed costs to the Treasury, unlike the others.

As for what was missing from the speech (always the hardest part to identify), I was struck that she barely mentioned inequality, except in relation to women and girls. We were back to ending world poverty, a la 1997, but with added climate change. No mention of wealth taxes or other redistributive ideas. And although she had lots of warm words about civil society organizations on the ground, and has clearly met and been inspired by a number of these, she was much more cautious about INGOs, who were largely referenced in relation to their use of stereotyped fundraising imagery. INGOs clearly have some bridges to (re)build there.

You can see the full video and transcript below, c/o ODI.

Apologies for the anglo-centrism and all that, but the recent series of crystal ball blogs on the From Poverty to Power blog about UK Aid under (as seems likely) an incoming Labour government has been getting lots of good comments. Here’s Andy Sumner parts one and two, and Tom Wingfield’s response.  I’d be very interested in other people’s reflections on these and on this event, so please chip in over at From Poverty To Power.


Duncan Green

Duncan Green is strategic adviser for Oxfam GB and co-writes and maintains the From Poverty to Power blog. He is author of the books ‘From Poverty to Power‘, ‘How Change Happens’ and Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. He’s also a lead educator for the free online course Make Change Happen, developed by Oxfam with the Open University