Stephen Crabb is Member of Parliament for Preseli Pembrokeshire. Sir Desmond Swayne is Member of Parliament for New Forest West.
Politics is shaped by stories, and the only tale in town right now is about Britain’s place in the world. Different visions for our future are jostling for attention in the Conservative leadership contest, each presenting itself as the one for members, and eventually the country, to back.
Whichever version triumphs, it must include Britain’s role as a force for good. Through our work with others, we shape the world around us, promoting the British values we hold dear – compassion, pragmatism, and determination. As Conservative MPs, we believe this is what our country stands for.
Our global leadership is reflected in our commitment to addressing global problems such as disease, corruption, injustice, climate change, and extreme poverty, as well as swift responses to natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies. We’re often willing to do what others can’t or won’t.
These achievements are, in large part, based on our resolve in the fight against extreme poverty. Namely having the preeminent development agency, The Department for International Development (DFID), and our commitment to delivering 0.7 per cent of national income in aid.
So, it is with concern that in selecting a new leader of our Party, and Prime Minister, we have encountered arguments that risk our global standing in this area.
From out-and-out calls to slash the aid budget, to vague proposals about reducing Whitehall Departments to create ‘supercharged’ ones – implicitly, with DFID on the chopping block – the tools we use to fight extreme poverty are under threat.
Scrapping either of these would be unwise. Such steps would not only be harmful to people in poverty, but would hurt people in Britain as well. It would represent a retreat from global challenges – disease, instability, terrorism – that we have long been at the vanguard of tackling. This risks our hard-earned diplomatic currency with partners on the world stage, right at the moment we are renewing these relationships globally.
This ‘global public good’ is firmly in our national interest. Making the world a healthier and safer place is just the start. Fighting modern slavery, tackling the scourge of FGM, or improving the conditions of those vulnerable to extremism are not just great achievements, they’re hard evidence of how what we do is in our interest as well. It is not for us to step down from these challenges, but for others to step up to our level against them.
Any leader worth their salt must see how this is not just about charity. Beyond the simple truth that tackling these challenges benefits us, our legacy of helping-others-help-themselves is a shrewd investment in Britain’s global future.
It builds trust and fosters good diplomacy. It nurtures opportunities and potential in every corner of the earth. We are building the capacity of future trading partners and military allies. We are exporting our democratic institutions, in turn strengthening our own. We are spreading our values of trust, reliability, and determination.
Our global influence has a lot to do with maintaining the tools in our ‘international armoury’. The UK is known for demanding higher standards and more impact from our partners in multilateral organisations, such as the OECD Development Assistance Committee, which sets international aid rules. This ability to punch above our weight diplomatically comes from having the right architecture in government. World-class armed forces, Rolls-Royce diplomacy, and the preeminent development agency. This trinity should be protected from short-term political whims.
This is not to claim that aid can’t, or shouldn’t, do better. Every penny of UK aid spent should meet the highest standards of poverty focus, effectiveness, and transparency. When it does not cut the mustard, it not only fails the people it is intended for, it lets the British taxpayer down as well.
One idea could be to require DFID to sign off on all aid being spent. Another would be to accelerate progress on the Aid Transparency Index, which all departments have pledged to achieve ‘good’ or above by 2020. We applaud efforts to take a tough line on aid, but we should improve standards in the right way – one that builds, not diminishes, our reputation.
Our next Prime Minister must tell the positive story of our contribution to building a better world. They will have the chance when we host the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) next year, and the G7 summit in 2021.
These will require the substance behind it, and jeopardising this by slashing aid or closing DFID is not the answer. Arguably, our contribution to fighting the injustice of extreme poverty is Britain’s greatest export. Whoever triumphs in the Conservative leadership election cannot risk this.