Saturday, 28 April 2012

Why should Britain continue aid spending?

Today I spoke about the benefits to UK security of our development budget at the ResultsUK conference. Here is the argument:

There are lots of arguments for increasing UK development spending and often these arguments are humanitarian in nature, focussing on a moral duty to do something about suffering. I fully support these arguments. But development aid can also be self interested. At times this has manifested in propping up puppet regimes, or in opening up markets to exploitation.

I argue that self interest can be combined with what is morally right in international development policy. Specifically, I make the case for development aid’s ability to enhance UK security.

I believe that making a self interested case for development spending, alongside the moral imperatives, is extremely important, especially at a time when budgets are being squeezed. There is a strong public discourse which argues for the aid budget to be cut, and we need strong, persuasive arguments against that. 

DfID understands the connection between development and security and is orientating policy in this direction. There are some direct policies from DfID around governance and conflict resolution along with broader policies also feed into this benefit.

The task is huge and requires more in resources and commitment than the UK alone is capable of providing. This is what makes a multilateral commitment like the 0.7% of GNP target especially important. The UK must play its role in fulfilling this commitment and use all our diplomatic strength to encourage others to do the same. 

When talking about UK security we should understand it not just in terms of border sovereignty, but also in terms of the safety of British interests overseas. We should also understand that development aid in a general sense helps our security because unfairness can eventually lead to insecurity. 

Poverty and bad governance promote conflict and regional instability, so development aid which counters these not only benefits the countries in which aid is focussed but their neighbours as well. In turn this lessens the extended threat to the UK in our globalised world and helps to protect British interests operating in these areas.
It can be difficult to directly link development spending with specific outcomes, as security threats are diverse and uncertain. When working preventatively it is impossible to know which places would otherwise have developed counter to UK security. Some examples of areas in which development spending has a role in enhancing security are immigration, counter-terrorism, piracy and organised crime:

  •  Immigration can be perceived as a threat to UK security and is often caused by conflict, human rights abuses, famine and other humanitarian crises. Tackling these issues helps to reduce the ‘push’ factors of immigration.
  • Development is also part of counter-terrorism strategy, with the understanding that poverty, instability and failed states all increase the risk of international terrorism in the UK and against UK interests abroad. Even when terrorists do not originate from failed states, failed states provide space away from government in which training, radicalisation and planning can happen. Examples of this include Afghanistan under the Taliban and Somalia with Al-Shabaab at present. 
  • Another good example of insecurity affecting UK interests is piracy, which is allowed to continue through ineffective government in Western Africa. Keeping shipping routes accessible is vital to UK security and economic interests. 
  • Instability and failing states often provide fertile ground for transnational organised crime such as the drugs trade, people trafficking and similar. Accumulated power in criminal networks can be extremely difficult to break. In terms of UK security this is of greater concern when geographically closer. However, globalisation and trade bring distant concerns closer to home. For example, instability in Colombia has an impact here through trade in cocaine. These kinds of concerns are not always conceptualised as security issues, but as they represent a lack of state control over borders and are associated with criminality here, they can be conceptualised as a security issue. 

As you can see development spending and security is not a simple equation of certain actions and outcomes. Many of these threats to security may never happen no matter what we spend. However, working against the things which fuel these in a general sense is likely to have benefits for UK security and these benefits are enhanced by working in partnership with allies. 

A key part of enhancing UK security is good governance around the world. This should be distinguished from previous policies which promoted ‘strong’ governments at all costs, and also be distinguished from the idea that democracy itself solves everything. Good governance IS about democracy and civil liberties, but it is also about functioning economies, the rule of law and state provision of goods. 

Development policy under this government works closely with defence and diplomacy to ensure that UK interests are identified and worked towards coherently. 

Where the UK undertakes military interventions, development aid forms an important part of strategy, both in terms of enhancing the safety of troops on the ground and as part of exit strategy. This is an issue where the war in Afghanistan provides a lesson of what can be done better in the future. 

Development aid is also used as part of diplomatic strategy, enhancing UK influence abroad. This influence helps security in two key ways: by encouraging intelligence sharing (for instance on terrorism with Pakistan), and encouraging governments to take action in ways which enhance UK security (for instance through extradition treaties).  

So, from a security perspective what would happen if UK development spending was to be drastically reduced? It is difficult to argue that there would be direct attacks in the UK or to measure a specific cost in other areas of government spending. The link between development spending and security is too complex. However, I do have some suggestions:

·         Of key concern is the multilateral effect of development spending. If UK spending is withdrawn it is even less likely that other countries will seek to meet the 0.7% target, magnifying the impact on our security.

·         UK diplomatic influence could decrease as we lose some of our bargaining power. Diplomatic influence is not reliant only on development spending, but as we have decreasing hard power, the contribution of development is increasingly important.

·         There would be a cumulative effect of lack of funding of humanitarian causes and support of good governance, which in some cases would lead to insecurity and failing states. This in turn would have an impact on the UK in terms of terrorism, transnational crime, UK owned enterprise abroad and UK supply chain. 

I understand that some people may argue that this level of self interest in development policy is wrong and that people should be helped on the basis of need instead. From a humanitarian point of view I whole heartedly agree. However, policy makers have to consider two key issues:

  •  Firstly that there are so many people around the world in need that it is impossible to help all of them adequately. Our own interest therefore serves to narrow the field.
  • Secondly, in difficult economic times it becomes harder to justify the protection of, and increases in the aid budget with the electorate. Articulating a stronger self interested argument would help ensure that protection of the budget continues, which is surely better than being caught in a turning tide of public opinion.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Time for Plan B?

George Osborne has been urged again by the Labour Party to change course, most lately at the announcement of a double dip recession by the ONS.

I absolutely disagree with Labour's prescription for our economic difficulties, but increasingly feel that a change in policy is needed. Towards the middle of 2011 I felt the same discomfort, but was persuaded by George Osborne's speech at conference. The economic situation has worsened since then.

I very strongly feel that the UK economy requires rebalancing. A decade of Labour led to an overinflated public sector, fed by debt and allowing the distortion of indicators like unemployment.

The measure of a strong economy should always be the strength of its private sector. The UK was done an injustice when it became overreliant on the state for employment and growth, and it is now upto this government to take the action necessary for rebalancing.

It is a credit to the Chancellor that the UK has retained its credit rating on the back of a commitment to deficit reduction. This, in the face of European sovereign debt crises, is an achievement which is extremely beneficial to us all. However, whilst enough action may be being taken to (only just) satisfy the ratings agencies, it is not enough to turn around our economy.

Rebalancing is entirely necessary. It is inevitable that it will happen at some point in the future, and it is much less painful to do it now than to wait. My argument is that small steps towards change over a long period of time is just prolonging the pain and damaging public confidence. I would prefer a shorter, sharper course of action.

It has taken some time for me to come to this conclusion, but I very much feel that this should be a turning point in policy. We are simply not doing enough. Deeper, faster cuts in the public sector are necessary. A truly pro-business tax-regime, along with a truly pro-business Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is needed. There is no doubt that this will be painful, but if this action is taken at a faster rate the recovery can begin sooner and be more entrenched.

It should be made clear to opponents of George Osborne that cuts are not a choice: they are an economic necessity. It was striking that when the GDP data was released every economist the news channels broadcast were arguing for either a maintenance of course or for deeper cuts. All stated that this must happen for the economy to recover: within the experts, there is no debate.

Our only choice is whether we want the pain to be long and drawn out, or short and sharp. Do not be fooled by the promises of the Labour Party. Their plans may provide some comfort in the short term, but result only in ruin in the long term.

The strength of a lobby

There is a very interesting example at play in the UK today of the difference in strength and influence of different political lobbies. What makes this difference particularly interesting is that it can be seen in the same area of government: public health.

Take three substances and three different approaches: tobacco, alcohol and cannabis.

Tobacco has had a number of measures taken against it in recent years in the name of public health: punitive tax, a ban on smoking in public, a rise in the legal at which to buy and most recently a move towards tobacco going under the counter.

Alcohol gives a different picture. 24 hour licensing liberalised consumption whilst small steps in raising taxation have been taken. There is also discussion of minimum pricing for alcohol, and a strong public discourse against the 'horrors of binge drinking'. There is no hint towards raising the age of consumption or restricting the sale of alcohol any further,

Cannabis remains a banned, Class B drug with penalties for possession.

These substances undoubtedly have a negative impact on health, but arguably this impact is roughly similar for all. Indeed, arguably alcohol has the greatest impact on society - both in terms of health and public order - but also has the least regulation.

Cannabis was briefly reclassified to a Class C drug, but public opinion was strongly against this and it was returned to Class B.

The difference between alcohol and tobacco is that over several years a strong anti-smoking lobby pushed firstly the legal case for a smoking ban (focussing on health and safety for employees) and then developed a discourse which capitalised on public fear of cancer.

Though the health risks of alcohol use have been articulated, current discourse focusses on public order issues. The impact of smoking on health is made clear: it is never good or even neutral. The impact of alcohol on health is less clear, with changing advice about units where many people underestimate their consumption, ocassional research that suggests some alcohol is good for health and the idea that it is only excessive alcohol which is a problem.

Therefore politicians focus on binge drinking and scenes of public disorder. The cost to the NHS is mostly articulated as being in Friday and Saturday night incidents rather than the cumulative effect on health of years of moderate drinking.

It seems that liberalisation of any of these substances is now extremely unlikely. The differing speeds of change are largely explained by the dominance of differing narratives and their ability to persuade public opinion.