Alex Singleton is Director-General of The Globalisation Institute.
For too long the Left has held a monopoly over people’s hearts and minds when its comes to international development. It is true that the Make Poverty History campaign is a worthy campaign. It has done a great deal of good by putting Africa at the top of the agenda this year. But the fact it is wedded to outdated trade ideas about protecting infant industries and top-down approaches to aid shows how free marketeers have failed to influence the public debate.
One reason for the Left’s monopoly on international development is that we have allowed ourselves to be portrayed as entirely negative, as against everything. Free-marketeers have, on the whole, failed to express in practical terms how free-market ideas can actually help people. There have been too many green ink letters to the editor (correctly) pointing out the problems of poor governance and corruption in Africa, but written without also putting forward a positive and practical way forward. If your younger brother does something foolish and gets into serious trouble, do you just harangue him for his foolishness, or do you help him get back on his feet?
A lesson from 1980s Britain is that free markets are good but it is better to be in favour of practical ways that free markets can help people. Helping people living in council homes to own their own home actually meant something to people – it helped people climb the economic ladder. And similarly, an enterprise-based scheme like microcredit has an important part to play in helping create an thriving economy in Africa and in encouraging the governmental reforms and recognition of property rights that are so desperately needed. Although four billion people live on less than $1,400, only a fraction have access to basic financial services. Microcredit enables an African, for example, to buy a mobile phone and then set up a business renting it to his village. The phone can then be used to call other towns and villages to find out prices and demand for crops that have been grown, enabling growers to get the best prices. Another enterprise-based scheme, Technoserve, helps identify and encourage entrepreneurs in developing countries. Technoserve helps them find gaps in the market, develop business plans, raise investment, run a small-scale pilot and then expand their businesses. These enterprise-based approaches to development are vastly more effective than the top-down help of which the government, unfortunately, is still far too fond.
The work of the Centre for Social Justice has shown just how effectively a think tank can transform the debate on an issue. Three years ago, social justice was a left-wing term, about redistributing income and socialism. Now it means things like welfare reform and community entrepreneurs. That is quite an achievement. And that sort of achievement is what is needed now in the area of international development. The Department for International Development needs an intellectual revolution. We need to turn development policies upside down: we need to change to helping Africa from the bottom up.