UK election: An unprecedented turning point

By Fabian Hamilton 25 May 2015

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron gives a speech outside No. 10 Downing St., following the result of the 2015 general election. Photo by: Crown Copyright

The May 7 general election marked an unprecedented turning point in the United Kingdom’s approach to tackling world poverty and dealing with big global problems like climate change.

Never before have the manifestos of the main parties made such strong commitments to the wide spectrum of global development problems. This consensus was reflected in the cross-party collaboration before the election to deliver legislation enshrining 0.7 percent in law.

In the last parliament’s Select Committee on International Development — a cross-party group of parliamentarians of which I have been a member since 2013 — there was a shared commitment to the work of the U.K Department for International Development, one of the few development administrations in the world led at Cabinet level. DfID is recognized as “best in class” internationally, and is widely praised, for example by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

My travels in the developing world as a member of the IDC have demonstrated time and again how important our commitment is to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world. In Nepal, before the recent tragic earthquake, we saw how U.K. taxpayers’ money has helped improve the lives of thousands in projects like some of the 3,000 community-owned forests across the country, and in clean water provision to standpipes outside every home in some of the country’s most inaccessible rural villages.

In Jordan back in March 2014, we saw how our investment in a country — creaking under the weight of refugees from the civil war in Syria — has helped it immeasurably by our contribution to multilateral projects like the Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq in the north of the country. A city the size of Cambridge was built in just 12 days out of the desert to give safety to some of the hundreds of thousands of people escaping from the slaughter just 10 kilometers away in Dara’a, southern Syria. Jordan is one of the most water-poor countries on earth and yet it has seen its population grow 20 percent in the past four years.

I have also seen on the ground that the development agenda is changing. There are only 33 low-income countries left in the world, and most of those are fragile states, often requiring diplomatic, and sometimes military, support in peacemaking or peacekeeping. Furthermore, the global challenges like climate change, Ebola or migration, all causing unimaginable damage to individual lives and countries’ development, need action at global or regional level which transcends national boundaries.

We can’t say to victims of conflict in Syria, to those struck down by Ebola in Sierra Leone, or to those who have lost their homes in the latest typhoon, “we’re sorry, but we just can’t help.” If we have learned anything, it is that we must mobilize all our resources, including the heroic members of the National Health Service or the armed forces, who stand by to provide help wherever and whenever it is needed.

It is because the development agenda is now so broad, that we must welcome the talks going on this year to define a new global framework for global development, in the form of the sustainable development goals. These will be agreed at a special summit at the United Nations in New York in September. That meeting will be followed by one of arguably equal or greater importance — the summit in Paris at the end of November to agree actions to contain climate change. Truly, this is a make or break year for global welfare.

But where will we be Jan. 1 next year, when the conference tables have been put away and governments and nongovernmental organizations get back to the serious business of delivering change on the ground? And what part will this new parliament play in cementing British leadership?

First, the government must articulate a new vision of international development. The building blocks were identified by the Select Committee in the last parliament in its two reports on the Future of U.K. Development Cooperation. We called for the cross-government nature of international development to be recognized in new legislation, and for the agenda “Beyond Aid” to be given greater prominence. The DAC, too, has called for a more explicit strategy of what it calls “policy coherence” — covering trade, international finance, human rights, corruption and arms sales.

Second, the new Conservative government needs to engage internationally with a whole range of multilateral agencies: those dealing specifically with climate change or health pandemics, of course, but also the U.N. as a whole, the EU and — yes — the Commonwealth. The U.K. brings unique assets to the international system and has “soft power” derived from our language, history, institutions and multiplicity of friendships and associations around the world. Let’s make good use of those to reshape the principles, rules and operational effectiveness of the international system.

Third, Parliament’s role is crucial, not only in holding the government to account, but also in helping lead public opinion. As chair of the Select Committee’s work on independent evaluation of DfID programs, through the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, I saw firsthand the change that Britain brings, but also the power of independent oversight. The Select Committee has a great opportunity to help shape a new agenda, and make the necessary link between aid and other aspects of development. I hope that the new committee in this Parliament can be a catalyst of wider conversations around the Palace of Westminster.

When I was in Jordan last year, I looked into the eyes of a refugee child, stuck in the Zaatari refugee camp, but still full of hope. I don’t want to see that child carried weeping from a sinking boat off the coast of Italy. I want for that child what I want for my own children: an education, a family, the opportunity to make a contribution. What I want for my children and for that child in Zaatari is joy, not suffering.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

About the author

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Fabian Hamilton

Fabian Hamilton has been the Labour MP for Leeds North East since 1997 and was re-elected to Parliament on May 7 with an increased majority. He served for 10 years on the Foreign Affairs Committee and then, since 2013, on the International Development Committee which monitors the work of DfID. For the past two years he has chaired the committee responsible for overseeing the Independent Commission on Aid Impact.


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