Chris Law – 2022 Speech on a Strategy for International Development

The speech made by Chris Law, the SNP MP for Dundee West, in the House of Commons on 6 July 2022.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I also congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), because I watched him during his speech and his hand did not shake once. That impressed me, as it is certainly not how I experienced making my maiden speech—although perhaps it is because today Operation Big Dog might finally be going to the vet for one last time. I also thank my trusted friend and colleague, and Chair of the International Development Committee the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), for securing the debate. I look forward to hearing her conclusions.

This debate has gone on for more than a couple of hours and what has been striking is that we are all saying one thing: this strategy is not an international development strategy. Not one Member has stood up and supported it this afternoon. That should be the most striking feature of the debate. Rather, it is almost entirely a business and trade-focused strategy, with only one mention of the UN sustainable development goals, which are the very backbone of development and aid, and just nine mentions of poverty. Instead there is a relentless focus on business, trade, enterprise, exports, global supply chains and the private sector. As a serial entrepreneur, I get that, but that is not the first priority in the minds of those who are absolutely on their haunches and who have nothing on a day-to-day basis. Frankly, we have abandoned what an international development strategy is all about: to alleviate the most fundamental issues of starvation, persecution and all the other problems in some of the least developed and most vulnerable countries.

The Secretary of State previously held office in the Department for International Trade, so it comes as no surprise that this document could easily have originated from that Department. I have been thinking about a new title for her: the Secretary of State for Enterprise—the SS Enterprise, so she could be Captain Truss. What underpins this strategy is not poverty alleviation but trade with UK businesses. Indeed the strategy states:

“Our financing model…will deliver for people here in the UK—investments abroad will generate export opportunities in the UK, creating jobs right across the country.”

The UK Government clearly view international development as an investment and profit venture, in their own narrow nationalist interests.

The international development sector has been scathing of the plan, with Bond stating that the strategy

“seems largely driven by short-term political and economic interests rather than the attempt to tackle the root causes of global crises such as inequality, conflict and climate change, which impact us all.”

Similarly, Oxfam has said that

“this strategy prioritises aid for trade and the financialisation of development. It is clearly motivated more by tackling China than tackling poverty…By gutting its aid budget—and now putting geopolitics above poverty—the UK has fallen short of the challenge.”

Perhaps that is why no one so far has stood up and supported the strategy.

The SNP is of the firm opinion that international development should not be viewed as a business and profit venture. It should be focused on protecting and safeguarding those in the most acute need around the world. Anything else is, frankly, a complete dereliction of both moral duty and a duty as one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Therefore, it is shameful that poverty is rarely mentioned in the strategy. The only mention of UN sustainable development goals is as follows—even the framing of it is appalling:

“The UK brings powerful economic and political tools to our development partnerships:”—

I agree—

“aid, diplomacy, trade, investment, expertise and influence. We will use those to meet the evolving needs of our partners, and support achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals…in line with the Integrated Review.”

I ask the Minister here today: how can a strategy that claims to be wide-ranging and holistic possibly address the UN sustainable development goals in a co-ordinated and clear manner when there is only one mention of the SDGs in the entire strategy?

By focusing heavily on trade and investment opportunities, the UK Government are implicitly prioritising economic opportunities with middle-income countries that have immediate domestic business potential, rather than with countries in dire humanitarian need whose national and economic infrastructures have been crippled by crisis. A key question therefore arises: who is the intended beneficiary of this new international development strategy? Is it aid recipients, or wealthy UK-based donors?

At the International Development Committee in May—I am glad to see a number of my colleagues from the Committee here in the Chamber—I asked the Foreign Secretary why the first case study within the international development strategy was that of Liquid Telecom, a company established in the UK, building fibre broadband in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What sustainable goals does that achieve and how exactly does it reduce poverty? It has been estimated that 73% of the Congolese population live on less than $1.90 a day, yet UK aid to the DRC has been cut by around 60%.

Last year, 19 aid agencies appealed to the FCDO, stating that 27.3 million people in the DRC—[Interruption.] I do hope the Minister is listening while she is on the phone. Some 27.3 million people in the DRC are experiencing acute food insecurity. Action Against Hunger stated that the UK aid cut to the Democratic Republic of the Congo—I hope the Minister is listening at this point—would kill 50,000 children who would otherwise have survived.

There is no mention of any uplift in ODA food and nutrition programmes within the strategy, despite the current global food crisis—it is bonkers—and despite its being one of the key goals of the SDGs. However, the strategy says:

“We will make more targeted investments of our resources and our efforts in fragile states or where there are compelling trade and investment opportunities.”

This strategy should be in the bin. Why is the broadband provision being highlighted in this strategy, instead of its addressing acute food insecurity? Can the Minister answer the question that the Foreign Secretary could not answer: at what point does a trade or investment opportunity become more compelling than saving starving children’s lives?

The strategy is rhetoric-heavy and spending-light and fails to make any explicit funding references to health, education, food, or women and girls’ programmes. For example, the strategy commits to: increasing access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics; building stronger health systems; ending preventable deaths; and investing in research and innovation. However, it does not mention how those aims will be achieved, or how much funding has been earmarked for these efforts. [Interruption.] I am trying to deliver a speech! The Minister needs to hear what I have to say. Similarly, there are commitments to education, empowerment and ending violence for women and girls, but no detailed funding commitments, and no references to wider educational targets for boys and young men.

The Foreign Secretary has also said that she would restore the budget for women and girls to £745 million, which sounds honourable, but CARE International estimates that the FCDO would have to provide £1.9 billion to restore spending levels for gender equality to 2020 levels, so that money is a fraction, and what is being claimed is not true. There is lots of rhetoric, but little, if anything, of the detail.

Crucially, the International Development strategy provides no concrete roadmap to reinstating the 0.7% aid budget, and boy what timing! As we heard earlier, the G7 was coming to UK, and all of its members stepped up to the plate as we stepped down.

The Government’s approach is also bonkers at a time when the planet is facing multiple crises. Let me list just a few. The UK Government have cut health and medical funding during a global pandemic. They have cut food programmes during a looming global food security crisis. They have cut environmental projects in the midst of a climate crisis. And—you couldnae make this up—they have cut conflict-resolution projects at a time of renewed war. Those cuts cost lives. Analysis has shown that over 7 million children have lost access to education, 12 million babies will not receive nutritional support and over 100,000 unvaccinated children will die. Yes, that is death as a result of the UK’s callous decision to cut the aid budget—I hope I am clear. These death-sentence cuts are as miserable and rotten as the core of this Government today. It is morally and pragmatically indefensible that this UK Government continue actively to jeopardise the lives and wellbeing of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.

Let us put this issue in the current political context. Ever since he came into office, the Prime Minister has been intent on dismantling and reversing the UK’s leadership on international development—his ideologically driven departmental merger, savage budget cuts and now this aid-for-trade strategy have put that beyond doubt. He has aligned policy more closely with the manifesto commitments made by Nigel Farage when he was leader of the Brexit party and UKIP; he has dismissed cross-party consensus in this Chamber; and he has U-turned on his own party’s manifesto and the Government’s legally binding commitments. With his time in No. 10 coming—rapidly—to an end, I hope those irresponsible actions and callous attitudes towards the world’s poorest and most vulnerable are reversed as swiftly as possible.

I also live in hope that those on the Government Benches who have defied their leadership and their party Whips make the case for a return to 0.7% of GNI, with that money focused on poverty alleviation more loudly than ever before. I even dream that those who voted for these destructive policies for narrow, short-term reasons or for their own personal political advancement will reflect on the damage they have done to the UK’s reputation, to the UK’s national interest and, most importantly, to the millions of people who have lost out on life-saving support which was destroyed at the stroke of a pen and without a tinge of regret.

Over the past three years we on the SNP Benches have been resolute in our opposition to the Government’s international development policies and in our support for a fully funded aid budget targeting those in acute need. We will continue to push the UK Government into adopting an international development framework akin to the good global citizen policy proposed in the Scottish Government’s recently published “Global Affairs Framework”. We are committed to prioritising the furthest behind first, instead of politicising aid. We will amplify marginalised voices on global issues such as migration, human rights, biodiversity and the climate crisis. We have committed to listening and acting in response to often unheard voices, especially those of women and young people and those from the global south. We will always aim to be a good global citizen, no matter what challenges may emerge and irrespective of the behaviour of others. That is fundamental to everything we do internationally, and it is at the core of why we in the SNP are true internationalists and put our money where our mouth is.

The Scottish Government, with the Scottish Parliament’s meagre devolved powers in the field of international development, have already taken wide-ranging positive action. Scotland was the world’s first nation to set up a dedicated climate justice fund, which will double to £24 million over the next four years. At COP26 we were also the world’s first nation to commit to a loss and damage fund. Rather than cut aid, the Scottish Government will increase their international development fund from £10 million to £15 million during this Parliament. Scotland is already demonstrating that it sees international development very differently from the UK Government and is stepping up to make its global contribution, rather than retreating inwards and focusing on self-interest.

With the referendum on Scottish independence coming in October 2023, it is time to set out our hopes and ambitions for what Scotland could and should do differently as a good global citizen in the international community. Scotland can and wants to do better. I envisage an entirely different, more progressive and more humane way of delivering on our international development commitments.

For example, I would like an independent Scotland to make helping the furthest behind first, and alleviating poverty, the basis for all international development policy within a separate department for international development. I want an independent Scotland to commit in law to spending the UN target of 0.7% of GNI on official development assistance and fully embed the UN’s sustainable development goals and grand bargain commitments into its international development strategy. Scotland has an opportunity to lead the way in decolonising development, ensuring that development projects are partner rather than donor led, and promoting the establishment of a decolonisation officer within Scotland’s department for international development.

I will finish on this. I believe without doubt that as a progressive, outward-looking and truly internationalist nation, focusing on core themes such as conflict, health, climate and gender equality, an independent Scotland will not only have profound potential for positive change but will be a key partner, leader and influencer, committed to the most vulnerable peoples across the world, to do more, to do better and to deliver a fairer and more just global future.