The Iron Lady’s legacy on international development

Margaret Thatcher, former U.K. prime minister, in 1989, as she addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Photo by: Saw Lwin / United Nations

Margaret Thatcher, the United Kingdom’s iconic prime minister from 1979 to 1990, has been known for projecting strength on the world stage – sending war ships to defend the Falkland Islands from an Argentinian invasion, for instance, or helping to usher in the fall of the Soviet Union.

Her legacy on development cooperation has received less attention over the years. The trained chemist and lawyer, who died Monday of a stroke, oversaw a reorganization of the U.K.’s central government, including foreign affairs. One goal, according to a 1970 Conservative Party document, was to “engage the private sector of industry, commerce and finance to a greater extent than hitherto” in the provision of development aid.

The Overseas Development Administration, which Thatcher reestablished at the beginning of her tenure after four years of Labour rule, was the predecessor of today’s U.K. aid agency, the Department for International Development, created in 1997.

DfID, one of the biggest bilateral donors in the world, spent $13.7 billion in official development assistance in 2012, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Thatcher’s political strength and foreign policy acumen came as a surprise to many of her contemporaries after she burst onto the scene in the 1970s.

“Mrs. Thatcher has had no real experience in foreign affairs and has given no evidence of any interest in the field,” U.S. diplomats cabled to Washington after Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, according to documents revealed Monday by WikiLeaks, the renegade pro-transparency group which has been leaking classified documents for the past few years. “Now that she is party leader, this will of course have to change.”

It did indeed, and Thatcher soon found herself at the center of Cold War politics when in December 1979, shortly after she became prime minister, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, prompting a 9-year war that reverberates today.

Several of Thatcher’s decisions have been questioned over the years – her hesitation about German reunification and European integration, opposition to sanctions against the South African apartheid regime and support for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and technical assistance for the the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

In 1989, Thatcher urged world leaders in a speech at the United Nations to mount a “vast international, cooperative effort” against global warming, although she reversed course in her 2003 book “Statecraft,” calling climate change warnings “alarmist.” Still, in his eulogy this week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Thatcher as “one of the first world leaders to issue a warning about [climate change’s] effects.”

After she resigned as prime minister in 1990, Thatcher stayed engaged in foreign affairs, for instance by chairing the board of London University’s Institute of United States Studies. Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, who now serves as a Chatham House associate fellow for the Americas, was an ex officio member of that board then, serving as director of the Institute of Latin American Studies.

Bulmer-Thomas wrote this week: “She was in general an efficient chairperson, although there was never an occasion on which she did not speak with passion about her personal friendship with Ronald Reagan, the Anglo-American relationship and its ability to solve most of the world’s problems. That belief, profoundly wrong though it has proved to be, was probably what marked out her foreign policy more than anything else.”

Baroness Thatcher was 87 when she suffered a fatal stroke on April 8 at the Ritz Hotel in London. What do you think her legacy on development cooperation has been? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.