Gareth Thomas – 2022 Speech on a Strategy for International Development

The speech made by Gareth Thomas, the Labour MP for Harrow West, in the House of Commons on 6 July 2022.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), and I will come on to her point about soft power in a moment. I join others in congratulating the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), on securing the debate. I also join them in stressing just how wrong-headed the abolition of the Department for International Development was, as was the decision to cut development funding to just 0.5% of our national income, which was an act of self-harm just as much as it was an act of harm to the developing world.

Beyond our moral responsibility, as one of the richest nations in the world, to help the very poorest in the world, there is surely also a strong national, domestic set of reasons for rethinking our approach to international development, which covid and refugees risking their lives to cross the channel have helped to underscore. I entirely understand the argument that our constituents’ needs must always come first, particularly in the middle of a cost of living crisis, but whether or not to give aid to countries overseas is not a binary choice. I would also gently say in passing that the choice would be even easier if the Treasury had not wasted billions of pounds on covid loans that should never have been given.

As the hon. Member for West Worcestershire said, it is in Britain’s national interests to build up our soft power, just as it is important to have real military power to call on in the very worst of times. Soft power comes from our global trade and business links; from the work of our universities; from our cultural institutions, such as the BBC, other parts of the media and the British Council; from the quality of the work our diplomats do in the Foreign Office; and, crucially, from the quality of the development support and leadership we provide.

If aid is used well in other countries, that helps our country too. For example, better police forces in other countries help to limit the potential impact of overseas criminality here. Better health services in developing countries help to prevent the spread of disease—think Ebola—to UK shores. Better opportunities for higher standards of living in developing countries help to reduce people’s reasons for taking perilous trips to start new lives in countries such as ours. And better governance, as well as efforts to support peace and build stable countries, helps to prevent conflicts and reduce the numbers of refugees needing to travel to more stable countries.

Then there are the even more intangible benefits of development assistance and other examples of soft power. If we are seen to help the world’s poorest for the best of reasons in countries that are not as rich as ours, doors open for other parts of our Government and for players in the business world, on whom our economic success depends. So there is a strong moral case for aid, but the self-interested case for aid is also powerful.

I gently say to Ministers that it is a mistake to have axed the Department for International Development. By the time I joined the Department as a Minister in 2003, it was already world leading. It was held in considerable regard across the developing world and on the world’s great stages at the United Nations and the G8. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said much more eloquently than I can, the talent of the Department’s officials was stunning and striking. I digress briefly to acknowledge the passing recently of one excellent official I worked with, Danny Graymore, who did some remarkable work on access to medicines. He was rightly recognised for his service to our country and to development.

The calibre of the Department’s Secretaries of State was beyond question. We had the remarkable Clare Short, the excellent noble Lady Valerie Amos, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central and Douglas Alexander. The Department had clear and obvious support from Prime Ministers and Chancellors of the Exchequer, certainly from 1997 to 2010 and, to be fair, in the first years of the Conservative party’s time in government. I say in passing that I hope I managed not to do too much damage to the Department’s reputation while I was there.

Between 1997 and 2010, Britain helped to lift almost 50 million people out of poverty and initiated a huge programme of debt relief. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) made a powerful point about the need for a new programme of debt relief; if only there was someone in this Government with the imagination to lead such an effort.

Navendu Mishra (Stockport) (Lab)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Several whistleblowers have revealed that there was chaos and a failure of leadership at the newly formed Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office when the merger between the Foreign Office and DFID took place, and particularly during the fall of Kabul in Afghanistan. The leadership was distracted by the merger, senior DFID staff were unable to access FCDO systems, and that meant that support on the ground for our staff members was poor. Does my hon. Friend agree that this Government prioritise a political response rather than humanitarian support for people on the ground?

Gareth Thomas

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and it will be good to hear the Minister’s response to that. I will certainly make some brief remarks about Afghanistan and the plight of the people there.

I was just mentioning the difference that the Department for International Development made and could potentially make again. We helped to get 40 million more children into school in the 13 years the Department was run by the Labour party. Polio was on the verge of being eradicated thanks to the vaccination programmes we funded across the world, particularly in countries such as India and Pakistan. Having initiated the strategy, I am particularly proud that more than 3 million more people were able to access life-preserving HIV and AIDS drugs in countries such as Malawi and Zambia, as you will remember only too well, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We improved water and sanitation services for more than 1.5 million people. We invested in better maternity and family planning services in countries such as Nepal. When earthquakes and other disasters struck, we led the way in improving the humanitarian conditions of those hit—in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, for example, or in Pakistan after the earthquake in Kashmir.

Other major countries, including the US, Germany, France, Japan and Norway, have separate Departments providing aid on the one hand and doing the hard yards on diplomacy on the other. The skillsets required of our diplomats and our development experts are very different. Development experts are focused on ensuring our aid goes where it needs to go to make a real difference, while our diplomats are rightly push a range of UK Government priorities to their counterparts.

The relentless focus the Department for International Development placed on its poverty reduction mission put it centre stage. The fact that that aid did not appear conditional on backing Britain all the time made our presence and our money even more welcome and, as a result, made the access and influence of our diplomats that little bit greater. It is striking that Ministers have offered little rigorous rationale for the merger. Frankly, the sooner both that and the cut in aid are reversed, the better.

I want to challenge the Minister gently on why governance is no longer part of the priorities for our aid spending. I think of the funding we provided before 2010 to help developing countries invest in better statistics collection services. That may not sound particularly important in the context of huge hunger or education needs, but without the ability to collect statistics about what is happening on the ground in a country we cannot make good decisions about the allocation of resources, work out where to send the next tranche of money to make a real difference or hold politicians and Governments to account. We need governance efforts in these countries that help to target corruption by funding the equivalent of the National Audit Office or the Public Accounts Committee; to support independent media to hold politicians to account; to bring to light the examples of corruption and to get rid of people from politics who are serving their own interests rather than the interests of the people; and to help to train high-quality civil servants so that instead of relying on NGOs or overseas aid, they can run things in their country for themselves. At my most naive, I want a world where aid and NGOs are not needed, but for that ambition to come just a little bit closer, we need to help countries to build effective Parliaments and effective Governments with great civil servants so that they can provide services to every community in every corner of their country. We should seek to back good governance and prioritise that as part of our aid strategy going forward.

Other speakers have mentioned the cuts in funding to the global multilateral system. I echo the comments about support for the global fund. I hope the Minister will be able to give Members in all parts of the House an assurance that that will be appropriately backed at the coming pledging conference. We are seeing cuts in funding to the global multilateral system at a time when there is so much need, and when we need honest brokers in the UN system to co-ordinate humanitarian relief and tackle the provision of support for hunger and poverty. That has never been more needed than now. It is a hugely retrograde step to cut by so much the funding to the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and so on. Indeed, when Ministers made those decisions, they went against their own review of multilaterals, which found that funding through multilaterals delivers more bang for our collective buck and reduces administrative costs to the taxpayer.

I want to make some specific points about countries that are of interest to my constituents. We have cut our bilateral funding to Pakistan by some 57% from about £463 million in 2016 to about £200 million a couple of years ago. Even two and a half years ago, Pakistan had the second highest numbers of refugees in the world, placing huge pressure on the country and the systems in place there. Given what happened in Afghanistan just 10 months ago, the pressures on Pakistan are even greater, with powerful challenges in terms of food insecurity, getting good-quality education, economic empowerment, and good family planning and other health services. It would be good to hear a clear rationale from the Minister for such a huge cut in funding.

Nepal and Sri Lanka are also, for different reasons, facing huge challenges in making progress towards the SDGs. Due to climate change, too many people in Nepal have had to leave the country for much of the year to go to India or other countries to seek work. It is therefore crucial to do as much as we can to help economic empowerment in Nepal. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) briefly alluded to Sri Lanka, with which a huge number of my constituents have very close connections. If ever there was a country that has made the case for a greater programme of debt relief—I echo his point, too, about China as the lender of last resort—it is Sri Lanka. There are huge human rights and governance concerns in Sri Lanka, as my Tamil and Muslim constituents know only too well, but it is striking that all the peoples of Sri Lanka are suffering hunger, loss of jobs, and real wage insecurity. I wonder whether, in the short term, the Department needs to be doing more to help the people of Sri Lanka.

Lastly, on Africa, the move away from aid being used for poverty reduction is perhaps the most striking thing in the tilt towards the Indo-Pacific. In my Front-Bench role, I have been struck by how a series of businesses have argued that Africa is where Asia was 10 to 15 years ago. Some countries have very fast developing economies, and some countries are making huge efforts on the quality of their governance. It therefore surely makes even less sense to be withdrawing aid and withdrawing our influence in Africa when our business community is beginning to look with such interest at its prospects in Africa. I am not advocating for tied aid—absolutely not—but the more we resume strong soft power and strong influence in Africa, the more down the line we can help our businesses win contracts in Africa and help to create jobs, too.

I end by urging the next Government to rethink their approach to the abolition of the Department for International Development. It needs re-establishing quickly, and we need to move quickly back to 0.7% of our national income being spent on aid.