Can we unite around the world we want to see?

26 April 2022

The ongoing effects of the pandemic, devastating conflicts, lethal draughts and Liz Truss’ latest efforts to decimate development. It’s fair to say things feel bleak.

Against this backdrop is the long-standing debate in the sector between those who want to defend ‘aid’ and those who think its focus is part of the problem. And when we are under threat - such as now - is when those differences come to the fore. 

When we are faced with crisis it is tempting to hunker down and defend what we already believe. Those who want to shield aid argue we have a duty to do so. To fail means lives will be lost. Others acknowledge this reality, but believe the ongoing prominence of debates on the topic are obscuring the causes of poverty, undermining long term public solidarity with those forced to live in it, and hence potential for transformative change.

Wherever we sit on the "aid/root causes spectrum", most of us recognise the problem. We know a significant number of the British public are unsupportive or actively hostile to our work - and they equate this work with the "aid" narrative. 

This narrative is based on power imbalances. A notion of "us" giving to "them", usually without explanation of why this need occurs. The lack of context enables the idea that poverty is ‘natural’ or the fault of the poor. Whilst it results in short term donations, this is at the expense of long term solidarity – undermining support for both aid and action on the causes of poverty. 

When poverty is growing in the Minority World and geography increasingly irrelevant, the "aid" narrative no longer makes sense, nor generates the outcomes we want. When things are tough at home, aid is seen as a threat. Spending at (or close to) home is put in opposition to spending elsewhere, a direct loss to people here. It enables nationalism, and even populism to flourish. It gives hostile politicians an excuse to slash and divert that spending. And places supportive ones in a difficult position, forced to awkwardly defend it on the doorstep. Whether aid advocate or sceptic, long-term, the narrative works for no-one.  

Is there any way out of this cycle? Can we ever regain support for aid, whilst also making the case for fundamental change? With a general election not too far away, perhaps this is the time for both sides to come together to define our own vision for what the future looks like. 

What if instead of calling to reinstate DfID and 0.7% we join forces to demand something totally different? Something bold and new - yet fundamentally simple. A new Department that will use the 0.7% in a new way. Its job? To tackle extreme inequality. And not just inequality of wealth, but power. This would enable it to both address the symptoms of extreme poverty and transform the root causes: using 0.7 to strengthen people forced furthest into poverty, whilst tackling corruption, climate change, and abuse of power by the global elites.  

The Department’s spending will often be the same as that previously funded from the aid budget: improving education, healthcare, gender justice and eradicating poverty. However the new focus (monitored by associated metrics) will improve quality, and make it impossible to justify spending on "trickle down" approaches or harmful institutions like the British International Investment. Instead, it will mean building equitable and effective taxation systems, and making power and governance more accountable - and will require cross-government policy coherence to make these things happen.

The new Department's branding can reinforce this new purpose - perhaps called Department for Global Equality, Solidarity or Redistribution. 0.7% might be called Global Equality Fund (or Global Redistribution Fund as recently proposed by the Kampala Initiative).

This new vision puts poor and people of average wealth on the same side as their counterparts in poorer parts of the world. Framed boldly and framed right, it’s a narrative with the potential to appeal to everyone but the elite. It can relieve politicians of awkward doorstep conversations, and bolster the work of the sector - however we approach it. For those who care most about aid, this new vision supports it - and targets it at the poorest, protecting it from misuse. For those whose focus is beyond, it no longer detracts attention from the causes of poverty. I’m sure there’s lot of nuance to work through, but on the face of it, it seems a win win.

If such an approach were to gain traction in the UK, it could have a lasting impact on how global solidarity is viewed and enacted by the rest of Europe and even the world. In these bleak times, stepping out ahead with a bold new vision could give us something to get excited about. 
 

About the author

Health Poverty Action

Natalie is head of policy and campaigns for Health Poverty Action.