On UK foreign aid and more, Liberal Democrats gain traction

Michael Moore, who has served as Scottish, defense and foreign affairs spokesman, serves as the Liberal Democrats’ shadow minister of foreign affairs for international development Photo by: MichaelMoore.org.uk

The Liberal Democrats, or LibDems, are generally regarded as the darlings of the U.K. international development sector. Their policies align almost exactly with most of what the country’s influential NGOs are asking for, and are usually formulated long before the other major political parties regard them as worthwhile issues.

The problem has been that these policies have previously formed nothing more meaningful than a wish list, because the LibDems are the perennial third force in electoral politics – with no chance of holding power. This, dramatically, could be about to change.

April 15 saw the historic staging of the first-ever live televised general election debate between party leaders. Nick Clegg, for the LibDems, emerged as the clear winner in the eyes of the viewing public and this was borne out in boosts to the party’s ratings in subsequent opinion polls. One has even put them ahead of the Labour Party.

With this election expected to be the closest in a generation, there has been much speculation in the run-up to the contest of what might happen if there were to be a “hung parliament,” one where no single party holds overall power. All analysis, in that event, points to the LibDems holding the balance of power, enabling them to negotiate to have at least some of their priorities adopted as government policy.

“They are very committed to the internationalist agenda. And we don’t have to worry about them with regard to the EU, as you do for instance with the Conservatives,” one policy expert said. “There would be no complaints from the development sector if the LibDems were to come out of this with a cabinet seat, either for international development or for climate change.”

The issues surrounding climate change are particularly strong ground for the LibDems. A deep shade of green long before it became politically de rigeur, the party has a highly ambitious set of commitments to combating climate change and the strongest commitment for adaptation funds for poorer countries.

The party’s manifesto, published last week, promises that it will “ensure that the developing world is prepared to deal with the consequences of a changing climate. We will ensure that adaption and mitigation measures are financed by industrialised nations on top of existing aid commitments.”

The party wants to establish a global fund that would pump $160 billion a year, between 2013 and 2017, into the developing world for this purpose. That is actually more than most campaigners have asked for, and comes on top of a commitment to the U.N.’s 0.7 percent target of national income to be devoted to foreign assistance by 2013. Like the other main parties, the LibDems would “enshrine that target in law.”

This is by far the strongest position on climate change adaption. As one of the few distinguishing points between the parties on development, this can be expected to figure loudly as the campaign progresses.

Another is to “work with other countries to establish new sources of development financing, including bringing forward urgent proposals for a financial transaction tax and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions from aviation and shipping.”

Again, this wording could have been lifted directly from an NGO campaigning statement.

Gordon Brown, the Labour leader, has led international efforts pushing for a levy on international bank transactions. But the LibDem commitment to this as a “Robin Hood Tax” – with all proceeds going towards climate change adaptation or to development work in the world’s poorest countries – goes considerably further.

Other priorities – health, education, reductions in maternal and infant mortality, restricting the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria – follow those already familiar from the other main parties. So does a commitment to tackle corruption.

Tax campaigners are also heartened by the uncompromising language used in the manifesto pledge covering that area. “We will crack down on tax havens which allow individuals and corporations to avoid paying taxes to developing countries,” the party proclaims.

What does the generally critical World Development Movement, a pressure group, make of all this? It unsurprisingly scores the LibDems highest among the three contenders, giving its development package 6 out of 10 points, against 5/10 for Labour and a mere 3/10 for the Conservatives.

Indeed the only party to score higher are the Greens, with a hefty 8/10. And they, it is still safe to say, are really not about to form even part of a government any time soon.

Read more about the May 6 U.K. general election and the Conservatives and Labour Party’s plans to reform foreign assistance.

About the author

  • John Davison

    John served as a Devex News correspondent based in London in 2010, covering DfID and U.K. aid reform. During a 10-year stint at the Sunday Times in the '80s and '90s, he was shortlisted as reporter of the year at the U.K. Press Awards, one of several accolades he has received. John has worked for the Independent and Conde Nast Traveller, among other publications. Most recently, he served as publisher of Christian Aid News, part of his role as head of media for Christian Aid.