Tony Blair, former British prime minister and founder of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Photo by: Benedikt von Loebell / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

DAVOS, Switzerland — Tony Blair, former British prime minister and founder of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, defended globalisation in an interview with Devex, but said the key to its success is to make it work better for everyone.

Blair did not appear on the public agenda at the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos last week, but had private meetings with key stakeholders to make progress on both governance in Africa and peace in the Middle East.

“Despite the backlash against globalization, the world is still coming together through technology, migration, trade, commerce, and we’ve got to find ways to make the world work together better so that we can provide solutions that distribute opportunity and wealth more equally but keep the enormous benefits of globalization,” Blair said in a sit-down interview with Devex.

Blair sees governance, the focus of his institute, as an essential driver for development, and said that building the capacity to govern effectively, transparently, and efficiently was as important for a developing country as foreign aid.

Aid and governance

Blair said he would like to see the global development community put more of an emphasis on good governance, not only in the sense of human rights and transparency, but in terms of capacity building and rule of law.

“If there is a problem with aid, it’s that the aid the West delivers is often — one, too bureaucratic. That’s the real reason by the way why Africa has opened up to China. And secondly, it’s not sufficiently equipped to support good governance,” he said.

Countries such as the United States and the U.K. take rule of law for granted, and therefore they fail to understand the significance of rule of law to the development of a country, Blair explained.

“If you don’t have the rule of law, you might get from third world to second world status, but I can’t think of a single first world country that doesn’t have the rule of law. And yet the lessons of how you create the right system are again quite clear. So I would like to see aid policy also try and learn some of these lessons and apply them,” he said.

Blair said he is a supporter of aid, and a believer that it works, but he does not think it is enough. “It’s not an either or, it’s an and,” he said about the relationship between aid and governance. He added that while he hopes to change the donor recipient mentality of development, he does find that countries are receptive when the aim is to bring ideas and expertise from the outside.

Sharing ideas across borders

Blair urged leaders in developing countries to go out and look for development and governance ideas from elsewhere around the world that are working, and use them to advance their country’s progress.

“One of the things we try to do in the institute is to build out intellectual capital around what are the ideas that work?” he said.

As an example of the impact that governance can have on development, Blair pointed to the border between Rwanda and Burundi. Whereas Rwanda is approaching second world status, Burundi is in disarray, Blair said. He said the difference is the Rwandan government, led by President Paul Kagame who was also in Davos, is rooting out corruption, welcoming foreign investment, and putting teams in place who are properly empowered.

“Government isn’t just sitting there with a manifesto and saying here’s what we should do,” he said. Rwanda and Burundi were not the only examples Blair cited. His institute often makes the case for governance by pointing to countries with the same population, resources, and potential, but a huge difference in levels of success: Poland and Ukraine, Venezuela and Colombia, North and South Korea.

“If you could learn the lessons of governance and apply them in developing countries, you can accelerate the process of development in an extraordinary way,” he said.

Tony Blair, who was in Davos for meetings with heads of state from the Middle East and Africa, talks with Devex about his work in governance.

Making globalization work

Over the past decade, Blair has launched a number of organizations including the Africa Governance Initiative, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and the Initiative for the Middle East. But the explosion of populism, from Brexit in the U.K. to the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. to developments across the European continent, has put the organizations’ work in defense of globalization under pressure. Blair decided to bring these organizations together, and add a platform to build a policy agenda for the center ground, under this new nonprofit entity, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

“We work on the things that we need to tackle if we’re going to make globalization work for people,” Blair said.

Blair said that if he were back in government today, he would be focused on technology, not just in terms of regulation — which is often where the debate focuses — but in terms of how to leverage these tools to transform industries.

So in his work with the institute, he is increasingly spending time in Silicon Valley, in an effort to bring together leaders in technology and public policy.  

He said the question driving his engagement with the technology industry is: How do you put the best minds there on the problems these developing countries have?

“How do you experiment with the technological change that’s being developed in the West Coast in countries in Africa, where frankly they may find it easier to try and trial their technologies?” he said.

These countries are very open to experimentation, he added, with Rwanda’s announcement at the World Economic Forum meetings about becoming the first country to pass performance-based regulations for drones being just one example of the potential.

“And there are ways ... I think, in respect to technology in health care and education, in which some of these countries could develop in a way that doesn’t make them have to go through the legacy systems of the West in order to get to the future,” he said.

Blair acknowledged the challenges posed by automation, artificial intelligence, and how big data will change the workplace, but struck an optimistic tone about how the issues will play out in the developing world, which is more focused on recent major strides against poverty.

“The developing world sees actually a greater sense of optimism about the future than the developed world which is in the throes of this big economic, cultural changes and just worried about it,” he said.

He said he is concerned that Western countries were turning inward at the very moment they should partner with developing countries more closely.

“What we have in common is so much more important than what divides us,” he added.

Read Devex coverage of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.