A World for the Many not the Few? Modesty, policy, and the dangers of the global-liberal consensus.

On Monday 26th March, the Labour Party launched its new policy paper on international development: A World for the Many not the Few. The paper aims to set out a radical and revitalised development strategy for the British government, based in five priority aims: a fairer global economy; a global movement for public services; a feminist approach to development; building peace and preventing conflict; action for climate justice and ecology.

The paper claims a shift to the Left in development thinking within Labour. It squarely identifies ‘the few’ as the major obstacle to development; it refers to justice and inequality, not poverty and charity; it seeks out solidarity with ‘the many’; and it makes a claim to be mainstreaming a feminist political economy into its vision.

From a socialist point of view, there is a lot to like in this. Along with others, I have been arguing against development discourses based on poverty and charity for some time. The paper explicitly condemns neoliberalism, the concentration of wealth and power, the sharp practices of transnational corporations, and it identifies questions of power and powerlessness and pivotal to the fortunes of impoverished peoples. The identification with feminism is also potentially very positive.

One can tell that this document has been developed by a shadow Minister in consultation with social movement intellectuals. The paper has a strong ‘campaign’ feel to it. This is not a paper that seeks to please the large mainstream NGOs (in fact one might construe that it is wanting to identify apart from them), the international financial institutions, or big business. Nor, though, is it clearly a paper for a government-in-waiting.

This is a first statement. It is brief, and its core purpose is to announce a change in direction and to make certain aspirational claims about what Labour would do in power. For a policy paper, it is noteworthy that it doesn’t have any policies as such. What it does is match some core values to broad policy areas in ways that suggest possible improved and re-energised international development practice. The document also signals that Labour will take development very seriously: it wants another ‘1997 moment’ (when the contemporary DFID was created). And, throughout the paper, there is a pretty sensible set of reforms suggested concerning the procedures and institutions of government – more transparency, a whole-of-government approach, a review of DFID’s organisational structures – which do not so much radicalise government as much as expose how truly awful the current government is even in basic terms of competence.

The sensible governmental reform agenda in For the Many is, naturally, juxtaposed with a critique of Tory development strategy which is portrayed rightly as incoherent, old-fashioned, opaque, and backed by slender political will. But, the paper is also very careful to praise DFID, both as a creature of New Labour and also during Coalition and Tory administrations. This is obviously partly because a party aspiring to government in the British system will have to work with a bureaucracy and technocracy already strongly embedded within this budget-holding ministry. There is no good reason to piss people off in advance. But, there is more to it than that.

The policy paper recapitulates what is to my mind the central canon of British development discourse: national vainglory. Indeed, through the planned revitalisation and radicalisation of international development, it is claimed, ‘we will once again position the UK as a global leader in international development.’ Labour will ‘spearhead a global movement’; it will ‘will continue to build on the best of British leadership in international development’. The paper also lays out a heroic set of claims about what British development work has already done. To paraphrase: saving millions, tackling deep-rooted structures of injustice, transforming whole countries, achieving moments of truly significant international justice, and pursuing a higher moral purpose in poverty reduction.

None of these claims are self-evidently and entirely true. Set out as a list, they look rather messianic. But, they do confirm to a regularly-asserted claim which is that the British government has the moral and material wherewithal to lead the world in reducing poverty and suffering.

It doesn’t. The major processes of poverty reduction have not been driven by British aid but rather by industrialisation in expanding economies. Deep-rooted structures of poverty, prejudice, injustice and so on are not changed by external agents armed with deliberative, participatory, and educative tools – they are changed far more slowly and in uncertain ways by the struggles of people within those structures. The notion that Britain transformed Sierra Leone is ridiculous to anyone who knows about Sierra Leone’s politics, and to repeat this is to affirm a myth propounded by New Labour.

One might argue that this judgement is too harsh and that British development aid has done lots of good. That argument fine in itself, but it is the prelude to a more modest account of assessing that good aid has done, what evidence we have of that good, and how future aid strategy might build on those successes as well as learn from failures. It is not a conversation about world leadership and transformation. Britain is a middle-level economy with a comparatively large aid budget, acting in a world where aid is less important that it used to be as a means to promote development. Consequently, a little modesty would appear to be in order.

Then again, perhaps this is not a time for modesty but rather a time for vision. Indeed, For the Many is introduced as a ‘vision for international development and plan for government’. Someone seeking a set of policy co-ordinates (a plan for government?) from the paper will be disappointed, apart from some brief mentions about international tax reform and preferential trade access. The general absence of policy from the paper is significant, not only because it is a policy paper but also because the scope of ambition in the paper is very high. And, consequently, questions about capacity, institutional structure, evidence and measurement, and modes of intervention are absolutely pivotal. The grander the aims, the longer the causal chains, the more complex the socio-economic milieux within which intervention is enacted, the more vital it is to consider the techniques through which goals are achieved.

For example, to take one of the aims from For the Many: how does one give voice to grassroots women’s organisations? The paper often affirms a desire to act in solidarity and support with grassroots organisations with a view to empowering them to advocate for rights connected to the well-being of the poor. How a Western government does this in any measure is far from clear. Academic research on the efforts of international NGOs – which are ostensibly more fit for this purpose – to generate empowerment, participation, and ‘voice’ show how often these interventions are often poorly designed and have unintended consequences, and that concrete socio-cultural contexts are far more robust than liberal-international development actors suppose. Recognising this, it is difficult to see how a government might empower grassroots organisations. Advocating legal reform? Funding organisations? Capacity building and training? Information sharing? And what kind of role might grassroots organisations have? How would they be identified and selected? How would support be evaluated? Surely, some sense of how solidarity might be enacted is necessary and, if so, some outlining of policy is needed fairly soon. The history is development interventions is littered with attempts to empower people that have gone awry, fallen into abeyance, or been ignored and resisted by those in whose names the actions have been done, and this is too important a context for a statement of ambition to sit comfortably by itself for very long.

There is another angle here though. The lack of policy in the document is accompanied by a constant positive reference to the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs serve as a reference point, to be integrated into Labour’s long term policy and the paper wholeheartedly backs them. As such, in the paper, the SDGs are both a key component to any future policymaking and a major legitimation for Labour’s claims to be a global leader in development practice.

So, perhaps the SDGs have done sufficient groundwork for this policy paper to stick to the vision and big picture stuff, safely in the knowledge that a global consensus based in detailed objectives has done much of the heavy lifting. Except that the SDGs are quite clearly a manifestation of a very mainstream and familiar form of global governance based in liberal market reform, the existing global development architecture ensconced in Western states, the UN, and the International Financial Institutions. They command widespread acceptance from Western leaders, philanthrocapitalists, and people in the World Bank: The Few, so to speak. When rights and empowerment are mentioned in SGD discourse, it is in thoroughly liberal ways – all empowerment and synergy not struggle and injustice. There is no room for strong and strategic interventions in markets or property regimes. There is an assumption that the global order is largely OK but just needs a little more political will and good data.

The SDGs are, to put it simply, an elite consensus based in familiar liberal canons not so distant from the ‘broken neoliberalism’ noted in For the Many. A revealing illustration: David Cameron enthusiastically accepted Ban Ki-Moon’s invitation to co-chair the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda which led to the creation of the SDGs, an outcome that Cameron endorsed.

It is unclear why the SDG agenda serves as such a pivot in For the Many. Perhaps it is an outcome of a recognition that the SDGs have hefty political international weight and resource behind them. Perhaps it is that the SDGs were created in a sense ‘for the many’ in that they are purposefully tasked with generating a broad elite global consensus. But, the danger here is that, in the absence of more specific policy ideas, the radical statements of intent set out admirably in For the Few will be ingested into the giant amoeba that is the global-liberal consensus of more markets, more aid, and individual empowerment.

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