Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Lab)
My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity. I draw attention to my entry in the Lords register.
This week, across the United Kingdom, families of all faiths have been worrying about how they will manage to spend the holiday season, beginning next week, with their families and, perhaps, their friends. However, my thoughts have been drawn constantly this week to those millions of people around the world for whom daily life is so unbearable and the future so threatening that, whatever small luxuries they might enjoy this holiday season, they are looking forward to 2022 with dread. Wherever they come from, those who are hungry and worried, who have been displaced and who are experiencing extreme weather events or conflict and violence, will look at the Christmas period as a time when those relentless pressures continue and are not abated.
This year, that is perhaps more true in Afghanistan than anywhere else, given the events of recent months. Not only is there drought, a vaccination rate below 10% and 2 million people in the country currently hungry as a result of this year’s events, it is reckoned that perhaps as many as 1 million children under five could die in 2022 if emergency assistance is not available. Yesterday, the Disasters Emergency Committee launched an appeal for Afghanistan. I urge Members of your Lordships’ House to support it this Christmas and think about those in much less fortunate circumstances than us.
This is a rare opportunity to debate a strategy that has not yet been published. I therefore very much welcome this opportunity and am grateful to be able to lead the debate. I thank the Minister for attending and for what I am sure will be an interesting summation of the debate. I also thank him for his work this year in ensuring that COP 26 focused not only on climate change but on moving the emergency of our natural resource depletion up the agenda and putting biodiversity at the centre of the debate in a way that had not been the case at previous climate summits.
I thank noble Lords for speaking in the debate but I am sure that we all miss Frank Judd, who would of course have contributed today had he been with us at the end of this year, as he was last Christmas. I hope that his regular call to think about the interdependence of our world will be at the forefront of our minds in our contributions today. I made my first contribution in your Lordships’ House on 8 July 2010, speaking just after Lord Judd. At that time—it was a debate on international development—I referred to “signs of hope”. In my summation, I said:
“Let us build on them and help to build a safer and more prosperous world for us all.”—[Official Report, 8/7/10; col. 360.]
That seems like a very long time ago.
In the years following that debate, the new Government appeared as enthusiastic as the previous one about international development and making a positive contribution overseas, with the establishment of the Building Stability Overseas Strategy, which evolved over the years into the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and the commitment to 50% of ODA going to fragile and conflict-affected states. The commitment given by the previous Government to spend 0.7% of GNI on official development assistance was also enacted during that period.
The emerging consensus, which was perhaps stronger than it had ever been in our country, was that the UK’s role as a development superpower was a key part of our soft power around the world and not just a moral obligation—it is a moral obligation, of course; I will always insist that that is the primary purpose of the contribution that we make—but it was also in our own self-interest in building a better and safer world for all. Even in 2019, after all the division of the previous two or three years and that very divisive election campaign, there was still some consensus between the parties and their manifestos. The party that won that election, of course, had firm manifesto commitments to increase spending on girls’ education, end malaria and maintain the commitment to 0.7% of our GNI being spent on official development assistance.
How different 2021 has been. In a year when our call to action should have been much stronger than ever before, with so many around the world suffering from vaccine inequality and the economic, educational and health challenges of lockdowns, we were the only leading nation in the world to cut our official development assistance. In a year when millions of youngsters missed out on school and millions of girls will not return to school, we cut the funding that we were going to give to girls’ education. In a year when we led the climate summit in Glasgow and had a responsibility to show an example to the rest of the world, we fell short on transitional funding for the countries that will suffer most from climate change and will now potentially suffer most in the transition to a greener future. This year, we have seen the migration and displacement of people go to their highest levels ever. We have seen the number of people around the world in extreme poverty go up, rather than down, for the first time in a generation. We continue to see vaccine inequality causing difficulties and problems in every part of the world.
Since 2010 and that speech I made in my first month in your Lordships’ House, I have tried very hard to work on a cross-party basis on international development and conflict issues, and to build friendships and collaborations across this House and another place to ensure that we take this agenda forward. I have tried to be optimistic at all times—even at the end of 2021, when I believe that the Government have made so many mistakes in this area of policy. I will try to be optimistic again today because the integrated review gave a commitment to a new international development strategy. It said that we would continue as a country to be a world leader on development. It said that we would restate our commitment to poverty eradication. It said that we would align our development spending and work with the Paris Agreement. It said that we would continue to work to achieve the SDGs by 2030. I welcome those commitments; I want to see them at the heart of this new strategy.
Today, I do not want to talk about how much is in the budget or how we spend the money; that is, the mechanics of delivery. I want to concentrate and what and why. This review should be an opportunity to review some of the inexplicable decisions that were made in 2021, such as the decision to almost completely clear out all UK funding for mine clearance around the world, which was just shameful. It should also be an opportunity to reinforce bilateral programmes again and give our ambassadors the sort of clout they could have had with an FCDO that was on the front foot rather than the back foot.
As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, recently suggested in your Lordships’ House, it should set out a plan to work towards 0.7% being back in place, not just as a hope, an aspiration or a surprise in some budget in two or three years’ time, but as a step-by-step rebuild of the capacity and the spending. Also, much more importantly, it should set out priorities and a strategy. The objective and purpose of that strategy should be our contribution to the international effort to eradicate extreme poverty. That is the primary purpose of our official development assistance. The primary purpose of international development work should be to leave no one behind.
There is, of course, a role for the UK and others to contribute to immediate emergency humanitarian needs and, of course, we build into these strategies environmental considerations, the need for economic growth to sustain development, and the need for better governance and security, but poverty reduction is the moral purpose of development and the best way to ensure that our interests are met in the long-term, as well as the interests of those who suffer extreme poverty.
I suggest three key priorities for this strategy, which we hope will be published in the new year. First, it should be crystal clear throughout that we align our development spending and our work with the Paris Agreement and now, of course, with the agreements that were reached in Glasgow, and that we support the continuing UK COP 26 presidency by ensuring that we are working in a joined-up way between our development work and our work towards a greener and more environmentally friendly world. We should not be substituting development spending for the spending on the other initiatives that the Government should be pursuing in the UK’s role as president of COP 26. We should focus our development spending on supporting just transitions and mitigating the impacts, and on disaster resilience in the meantime for those countries that suffer the most from extreme weather events and climate change.
The second priority that should run right through the strategy is a focus on girls and women. The new Foreign Secretary has already mentioned economic development as a key priority, and of course we want to see economic growth in the developing world that sustains development over the longer term. Women’s economic empowerment, bringing women to the centre, will be by far the best investment for the long term to secure sustainable economic development. Alongside that, equal access to health, human rights, and the freedom to enjoy a childhood without being married early or having your body abused are fundamental, as is the need for girls’ education, not just in primary school but right through secondary school and into further and higher education. Education is the great liberator. I think that the Prime Minister understands this and believes it. I implore him to turn it into action and funding, and to deliver more than just the words of the commitment.
The third area, which the Government have had a reasonably good record on over the last decade, is the commitment to conflict-affected and fragile states; I sincerely hope that that will be at the heart of the new strategy. Support for peacebuilding and conflict prevention has been the hallmark of UK development work for two decades. In that debate in 2010, I said that
“development is the mortar of peace.”—[Official Report, 8/7/10; col. 360.]
Development and peace are completely interlinked. Nelson Mandela said that you cannot get peace without development and you cannot get development without peace. We see today in Ethiopia how quickly incredible levels of development can fall apart when conflict re-emerges. We see in Afghanistan that without governance and stability, and without trust in institutions and a functioning democracy, how people’s lives can be turned around in a matter of months.
We must retain our commitment to conflict prevention and peacebuilding. I would like to see the strategy reaffirm the commitment to 50% of the budget going to those states and these projects and development initiatives, putting democracy, human rights, trust in institutions and the rule of law, fighting injustice and protecting security at the heart of our development work. It is long-term, tough work, working with people—not “to” people or “about” people. This work is vital and makes such a difference. We have a ready-made framework for these priorities and for our development work if, as the G7 said in Cornwall back in June, we are serious about launching a drive towards what was then called the “build back better” world—a slightly strange title for a new initiative but welcome in its positivity.
The sustainable development goals agreed in 2015, which the UK played such a role in agreeing, pulling together and then promoting, address the key social needs of the world. They address the economic growth and security that are required to deliver those needs, and they address the foundations of a better-protected planet and of peace and security that will ensure that will ensure that development can be consistent and sustainable. The integrated review said that achieving the SDGs by 2030 remained a UK commitment. In the words of the Prime Minister at the last election, it is a ready-made framework for sustainable development and for building back a better world. I hope that those goals are embraced as part of this strategy.
In conclusion, I refer to the speech made by the new Foreign Secretary earlier this month at Chatham House, where she laid out her priorities. She talked in that speech of a “network of liberty”, of putting freedom, in economic and political terms, at the heart of the UK’s vision in the world. Liberty comes in many forms. You cannot trade if you do not have anything to trade. Freedom from oppression, fear and violence is important, but the freedom which allows people to go to school, to earn money, to have a job, to see opportunities and to take them up—these are the freedoms which will change the world. Just as I said in 2010 that development is the mortar of peace, I believe that development is the enabler of freedom. I hope that the new Foreign Secretary remembers that when she agrees this international development strategy.
We can all do better than we did in 2021 as we go into 2022. We should clearly resolve this Christmas and into the new year that 2022 will be very different from the 12 months that we are leaving behind. I beg to move.