Q&A: Tony Blair on countering extremism and 'the best way to deal with China'

Photo by: David Fitzgerald /Web Summit via Sportsfile / CC BY

WASHINGTON — The multilateral system must adapt if it wants to be effective at combating extremism, building resilience in fragile states, and contending with a rising China, said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair, whose government started the U.K. Department for International Development, sat down with Devex during the recent World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington, D.C., to talk about how the multilateral system can better address pressing development issues, including in fragile and conflict states.

“Extremism is in part about an ideology that’s taught to people. But it’s also about that ideology taking root in very fertile soil.”

— Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister

The former prime minister said efforts to develop a new approach to addressing extremism in these contexts — such as the recently released report from a bipartisan task force at the U.S. Institute of Peace — are a step in the right direction for getting at the root of the problem.

“This has been a theme of mine for a long time,” Blair said, “that you’ve got to deal with the ideology underlying the extremism and not just extremism.”

Blair’s nonprofit, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, focuses on countering extremism, governance, Middle East peace, and combating populism.

The former prime minister also said it is not productive for the West to spend time deterring the increasing Chinese presence in international development. Instead, Western development institutions need to work at adapting how they execute assistance to make it a competitive option for developing countries that have gravitated toward China’s efficiency in recent years.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Your institute has a focus on both countering extremism and supporting good governance. The United States has recognized the need for a new strategy for preventing violent extremism like that laid out in the USIP [U.S. Institute of Peace] report, and there are bills in Congress that outline how it can be implemented. How do we make this new approach a reality?

First of all, the shift in thinking so that we’re really focusing on the underlying drivers of this extremism is absolutely right. I think the USIP agenda is essentially correct and I think could garner cross-party support.

This leads me to two conclusions: The first is that we need to make sure that we are combating the religious dimension of the ideology and not just its political dimension. And secondly, that we have to be rooting out — particularly from education systems, formal and informal — those aspects either of the curriculum or teaching that are promoting cultural prejudice and instead we’ve got to promote cultural tolerance.

This is why I think we need a much bigger engagement and effort behind programs like indeed the ones that my institute runs, which link up children of different faiths trying to open their minds to each other, get them to understand each other. Because if we carry on educating, as we are doing at the moment, millions of young people in different parts of the world to a close-minded view of the world, which regards those who are different as potential enemies, then it’s not surprising that the extremism continues.

What role can the international development community play in focusing on the resilience in fragile and conflict-affected states?

We should make governance a big part of it for sure. If we want to focus and start anywhere, it probably should be with the Sahel group of countries because they are absolutely at risk of the combination of poverty, weak institutions, exploding populations, and radicalization.

Extremism is in part about an ideology that’s taught to people. But it’s also about that ideology taking root in very fertile soil. The fertile soil being underdevelopment, poverty, exclusion, alienation, feeling of hopelessness. It makes absolute sense for the development agenda to shift also towards ensuring that you’re creating economic growth and social inclusion because these are factors that will lead people away from extremism.

The recently released fragile states index recognized that while communities can be quite resilient, countries, on the whole, have a harder time withstanding threats. How can development efforts help expand this resilience to a national level in difficult environments?

Q&A: The World Bank's strategy for fragile states

The new strategy will examine staffing, partnerships, internal policies, and other aspects of engaging in complex situations. Devex spoke to the bank’s senior director of the fragility, conflict, and violence group, to learn more.

My institute has done work in so many African countries and their capacity and capability to deliver for their people is very limited. Where it can be extended and expanded then they do start delivering immediately and all these problems become easier to handle. This is why I think you’re not going to get that resilience at a countrywide level unless there is a strong and capable and effective government. The government should also be honest and free of corruption and that’s an ongoing struggle.

Honesty alone is not enough. You’ve got to have effective instruments of government delivery. Whether it’s on infrastructure, electricity, power, roads, or it’s basic health care and education. Or it’s enabling business to grow and to thrive. Also of course to have the capacity to run your security because without security there’s going to be no development. But part of the trouble for all of these countries is that their challenges are manifold and their capacities are very weak.

Generating private sector investment in these countries has been a challenge. The World Bank just announced it’s developing a strategy for fragile and conflict states. What’s the role institutions like the World Bank and other MDBs can play here?

It’s much better if the international donor community works together with a country and for a country. There’s a great tendency for international institutions such as the World Bank to operate separate from other donors — they do their own thing. Secondly, they often do their own thing rather than the thing that the country really wants — that is not always true. Of course, the World Bank do fantastic work around the world as do all of these organizations, DFID, USAID, and so on.

But getting a strong sense of partnership with the country concerned and organizing the donors so that they are directing their efforts to change the country in a transformative way, including by helping them build these institutions of government — that’s the big challenge. Because if you look at the amount of money that goes into aid and development — I mean OK, it can always be more — but it’s not insubstantial. If it were used properly by the countries to which this money is given and it were organized in a coherent way it could achieve so much more than it does.

Why has this approach failed thus far?

I know this having sat at the other side of the table. National governments are incredibly reluctant to give up their own ability to control their own money. There’s always a hesitation in coming to the table and, as it were, putting your money in the pot. Secondly, our systems have become very bureaucratic. This is one of the reasons why developing countries often turn to China, for example, because they find that with the Western systems they just get locked into this bureaucratic morass.

How should the West be responding to China’s development model?

I take a somewhat different view of China. For developing countries, it’s perfectly rational for them to want options. The Chinese just act far faster than we do. We should take this as a competition that is bound to happen and it’s up to us because we do have strengths the Chinese don’t have. We’ve just got to work on those strengths and develop them and do it in a much more focused and much less bureaucratic way, in the way that I’ve described. If we do that we can make a big difference in these countries.

Contrary to what people think, there’s not a desire — and I discuss this often with African presidents — there’s not a desire on the part of African leaders to choose China over America. That’s not their test. Their test is “what can help my country develop in as sustainable way as possible, as fast as possible?” And sometimes the help that we provide can be more sustainable, but we’ve got to acknowledge that at present the help that the Chinese provide comes faster.

“We shouldn’t be anti-China, we should be pro good development policy.”

How must Western institutions change the way they operate so they’re competitive on the speed at which they can deliver projects?

They’ve really got to look at their own structures and the way decisions are made and implemented, and I find it a very box ticking bureaucratic approach. My institute partners with international agencies and it’s a struggle, always, because you’ve got constant systems of accountability that become almost an art form in themselves in the bureaucratic undertaking.

Decisions take quite a long time to get taken and the result is people look elsewhere, therefore, for help. Now, there are some really good initiatives happening in the World Bank and IFC and OPIC, USAID — there are good initiatives happening. But they need to happen much faster and much more effectively.

What does that mean for the way the World Bank and Western institutions engage with China on development?

We shouldn’t be anti-China, we should be pro good development policy. In other words, if we’ve got an issue about what China’s doing in a particular country — because there are issues that arise with Chinese assistance, and we should raise those — but we shouldn’t take an unprincipled view that’s prejudiced against us working with China in certain circumstances. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.

In any event, we’ve just got to accept China as a fact. It’s there. It’s a big powerful country and it’s going to become more powerful.

So there’s no point in us setting out to try and restrict China or push China out of the developing world. That won’t work, it will just cause a lot of confrontation that’s unnecessary. The best way to deal with China is to sort our own efficacy.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.