Ryan Henson and Katherine Mulhern: We must maintain Britain’s reputation as an international development superpower

15 Aug

Ryan Henson is Chief Executive at the Coalition for Global Prosperity. Katherine Mulhern is Director of the Conservative Friends of International Development.

An effective development budget, alongside an active diplomatic and defence strategy, helps keep Britain at the forefront of saving lives, alleviating poverty, and bringing freedom, security, and prosperity to all.

The international system is experiencing profound geopolitical, economic, and financial change. Authoritarian states hostile to British interests are actively seeking an increasing influence in world affairs. This means that democratic processes, and more fundamentally basic human freedoms, are coming under increasing threat.

But Britain can make a difference. Our proud history of fighting totalitarianism, combined with our membership of the UN Security Council, NATO and the Commonwealth and our hosting of the G7 Presidency in 2021, means we are uniquely placed to protect human rights, democracy, and freedom of the press, particularly in emerging and fragile states.

Britain’s international development expertise makes Britain and the world safer, stronger, and more prosperous.

When we tackle Ebola in Sierra Leone, prevent drug trafficking in Tanzania, and train Lebanese forces to fight Daesh, we help to prevent disease, drugs, and extremism from landing on Britain’s streets. When faced with no jobs, conflict, or disease, those in poorer countries are more likely to seek refuge in Europe or be attracted to extremist organisations.

Education, healthcare, jobs, underpinned by fairness, transparency, and a respect for the rule of law, are key to tackling the root causes of mass migration, destabilisation, and radicalisation, helping to make us all safer and our great country stronger.

The success of the new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, which will officially launch on 1st September, will depend on the extent to which our hard-earned, world-leading reputation as an international development superpower, is retained within the new department.

Countries can and should be empowered to stand on their own two feet, but to do this they need support to help them move through the stages of development and become partners in free trade and investment. In Britain, global free trade cuts the cost of living for working people and promotes choice and opportunity. The free market has been a pillar of human progress for centuries. Aid and development can unleash it, driving prosperity for all.

Britain should not be apologetic about seeking long-term diplomatic relationships that work in the national interest of both sides, but to bring about the trade that generates wealth, many countries need aid.

For as long as people stay poor, they will struggle to stand on their own two feet. Without an education, employers will not hire them. Without good local healthcare, they will be vulnerable to pandemics. And as we all know by now, pandemics don’t stop at borders. Regular sickness or injury will decimate a workforce and slow or halt economic growth. Without jobs people will struggle to take care of their families while paying little or no tax to their local authority. That means poor or non-existent health and education services, and so the cycle continues.

Focusing aid spending on poverty elimination is therefore not just morally right, it makes good economic sense too. The sooner we equip people with education, healthcare, and sustainable jobs, the less need there is for overseas aid in the long term.

We are eight months into a new decade, where Covid-19 and the resulting economic and political shocks have created opportunities for authoritarian regimes to push their agendas. As a result, human rights, individual freedoms, and the British values that have shaped the world are increasingly threatened.

It is in our national interest to counter that authoritarianism, win the battle of ideas, and stand up for the international rules-based system which Churchill and Thatcher did so much to shape and defend. It is also in our national interest to tackle the root causes of poverty.

Britain has always been a force for good: transforming lives, unleashing opportunity, and creating enormous British soft power. The new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office will have the potential to not only promote British values in a dangerous world, but also to turbo charge the tackling of the many root causes of poverty. If we get it right, both Britain and the world will be all the better for it.