Labour MP: DfID has 'lost its way' under Cameron

U.K. Member of Parliament Mary Creagh at the Party of European Socialists Meeting on Development. Photo by: PES Communications / CC BY-NC-SA

The Labour Party’s plan for government builds on our values and our proud history as a movement. The last Labour government created the U.K. Department for International Development, and through it, provided the global leadership to agree and fund the Millennium Development Goals.

We are proud of our achievements. We canceled debt, trebled the aid budget, untied aid, brokered ambitious deals on trade and climate change, and lifted millions of people out of poverty. We also set the U.K. on track to be the first country in the G-7 to reach the target of spending 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid.

Under Prime Minister David Cameron, DfID has lost its way. It has become the charitable arm of government and its reputation has slipped from global innovator to aid administrator.

If Labour wins the U.K. general election on May 7, DfID will remain a cabinet level department. We will put DfID back on the world stage to achieve justice for the world’s poorest people. We will lead and inspire other countries to do more — and deliver aid in better ways to ensure value for money.

We have a clear and bold plan to tackle global poverty and inequality. We have three strategic priorities:

1. Increase and maintain DfID’s focus on fragile and conflict-affected states.

As a backbencher, I visited Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi to see DfID’s work in fragile and post-conflict countries. I met with opposition leaders and human rights defenders, as well as medical staff dealing with victims of sexual violence. I visited a Save the Children center for children accused of witchcraft. I chaired the Parliamentary Group for Genocide Prevention, which changed U.K. law so that Britain was no longer a safe haven for those fleeing justice in their own country.

The proportion of people in poverty in developing countries who live in failed and conflict-affected states is 45 percent and growing. A recent report from the Independent Commission on Aid Impact criticized this government’s unnecessarily wasteful short-term approach to these states at the expense of the long-term processes of peace building and nation building.

Labour will restore Britain’s commitment to these tough environments by making longer commitments and by giving local communities a voice in the development process. We will reshape the fragile humanitarian system, which is failing to protect children from violence and work across government to prevent genocide.

2. Grasp the opportunity that the sustainable development goals present to tackle inequality.

Unequal access to health care, the unequal impacts of climate change and a lack of human rights for certain groups hold back development. Women and girls must be free from the fear of violence and have the same choices and chances as men and boys, free from the threat of child or forced marriage and female genital mutilation.  

We will put climate change at the heart of our foreign policy, as we did when Labour leader Ed Miliband — then secretary of state for energy and climate change — made the U.K. the first country in the world to enshrine a long-term emissions target into law with the 2008 Climate Change Act.

Too often, DfID has reacted to disaster rather than build resilient systems. The government cut U.K. bilateral spending on health in Sierra Leone and Liberia from 26 million pounds ($38 million) in 2010 to 16 million pounds in 2013-2014. The U.K. will now give 427 million pounds in aid to tackle the aftereffects of Ebola.

In my discussions with Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, and senior officials at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, UNAIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria, it is clear that reform of the global health architecture is overdue. WHO must respond to the shortfalls revealed by the Ebola outbreak, and multilateral organizations should move away from specific diseases and toward supporting countries to strengthen their health systems.

Labour will establish a global center for universal health coverage to provide partnerships, technical support and funding to countries that want to provide free health care. To do this, DfID will engage with enlightened leaders in developing countries who have the vision, courage and commitment to embark on fundamental change.

DfID will provide governments with the right mix of medical, taxation, systems and economic advice, to generate adequate funding from their own — as well as external — sources to develop government-owned health systems that reach every citizen.

3. Help business to make the right choices.

There is no better route out of poverty than a job. Labour will work with business to help them make the right choices — to treat workers with respect, maintain sustainable supply chains and pay taxes where they operate.

The current government’s approach to the private sector has been criticized by the U.K. National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. They slammed weak oversight and a failure to achieve value for taxpayers money after the government put hundreds of millions of pounds into opaque private sector investment funds.

Labour will position DfID to work closely with companies and trade unions here and abroad to end child and bonded labor. We will tackle slavery in company supply chains. We will also re-engage with the International Labor Organization.

We will also help countries collect more of their own taxes. DfID will work with the Treasury to secure a multilateral agreement to force companies to publish what taxes they pay and where. If that is not possible, we will discuss with businesses the best way to introduce a public country-by-country reporting format on a unilateral basis. We will lead by example, compelling the U.K.’s overseas territories and crown dependencies to stop companies hiding behind a wall of secrecy.

Longer-term challenges

As well as delivering our three priorities, DfID faces two longer-term changes: DfID needs to improve how it works across government. Trade, climate change, energy policy, diplomacy and defense are all intimately related to development. Government therefore needs to “speak with one voice.”

Finally, the proportion of the poorest living in middle-income countries will continue to grow. In government, we will ensure DfID has the right balance of diplomacy, technical advice and support skills to ensure no one is left behind.

There is a clear choice at the next election. Labour has the right plan to lead the fight for justice for the world’s poorest people.

Stay tuned for more U.K. election coverage and news, views and analysis on how this impacts DfID and U.K. aid in the coming weeks. To explore additional content, visit the Future of DfID series site, follow us on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Mary Creagh

    First elected as MP in 2005, Mary has been Labour’s shadow secretary of state for international development since November 2014. She is leading Labour’s campaign to re-establish the U.K. as a global leader in development, prioritizing the agreement of the sustainable development goals to drive forward development and eradicate extreme poverty in the next 15 years. Before Parliament, Mary taught entrepreneurship at Cranfield University’s School of Management and spent four years in Brussels working for an international NGO.