Over the weekend the former Conservative Prime Minister John Major defended David Cameron’s approach to foreign aid as ‘bold and right’. Why did he feel the need to do this?
At the May 2011 meeting of the G8 meeting Cameron delivered a passionate speech defending the importance of the UK giving aid to developing countries. The Prime Minister also urged the other members of the G8 to honour their pledges, pointing to the $19 billion gap between what they had promised and what had actually been delivered.
Cameron was not the first British leader to speak with feeling about the importance of aid at the G8. In 2005, when Britain was in the chair, Tony Blair identified international development and Africa as keypriorities.
What is unprecedented is that it is a Conservative Prime Minister who called for more aid, an event made all the more striking given the British government’s programme of severe cuts elsewhere. As my PhD is on the UK’s role in international development I can say with some confidence that Cameron’s speech confirms a remarkable change in his party’s policy. For previous Conservative governments – including those led by John Major – placed international aid under the auspices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This often meant the development budget was squeezed to fit other foreign policy interests. As a result, Conservatives did not appear to take international development seriously.
During Margaret Thatcher’s period in office aid was used as a tool to contain Communism and win allies amongst developing countries. Aid could also be tied to trade through a program established by the James Callaghan government known as known as Aid Trade Provision.
With the end of the Cold War aid was still made conditional but was more often tied to democratic reforms, good governance and human rights. Under Major the party also accepted in theory at least the need to adhere to the United Nations target for aid to amount to 0.7% of a country’s Gross National Income (GNI). But the Conservative manifesto in 1992 said it could ‘not set a timetable for this achievement’ while in 1997 it was still ‘a long term objective’ and by 2001 the party merely talked of working towards the target. By 2005 the party claimed that fighting world poverty would be ‘a key element of foreign policy under a Conservative Government’ and finally set a firm date for achieving the UN objective: 2013.
Arguably, the party was finally catching up with New Labour’s emphasis on international development. Indeed, Conservatives acknowledged that the British aid programme had become the best in the world and promised it would work to further improve it.
Cue David Cameron and his desire to demonstrate that his party was ‘comfortable with modern Britain and that we believe our best days lie ahead’. As part of his ‘de-toxification’ of the party, Cameron established the New Globalisation and Global Poverty Policy Group in December 2005. At the group’s launch Cameron said: ‘A new generation of concerned citizens wants prosperity for themselves and progress for the poor – whether living on the other side of the street or the other side of the world. Modern, compassionate Conservatism means responding to their demands’.
In subsequent speeches while Leader of the Opposition Cameron admitted that, ‘Conservatives used to regard global poverty as a significant, but second-order subject’. He also acknowledged New Labour’s work and the ‘personal commitment and leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’ as well as the contribution of Make Poverty History. Cameron also confirmed that a Conservative government would ensure the Department for International Development retained its independence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The process of change was confirmed with the publication in July 2007 of the Globalisation and Global Poverty Policy Group report which coincided with a Cameron speech delivered, rather symbolically, in Rwanda.
Finally, in 2009 Cameron confirmed the need to continue giving aid in spite of the world economic recession and anticipated most of the content evident in his government’s Green Paper, most importantly the pledge to put into law the UN target of 0.7% GNI for international aid.
While Conservative policy has changed radically it is questionable how far Cameron has taken other Conservatives with him. The Daily Express headline (above) tells its own story. More pointedly, the leaked memo from the Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox, highlighted the extent of disagreement within the party. Hence Major’s intervention.
Despite such opposition, in 2013, Britain is set to become the first country in the G8 to reach the UN target of 0.7% GDI for international aid. This will significantly improve Britain’s standing within the developing world – but Cameron will undoubtedly hope it has positive domestic consequences as well and persuade those he did not convince in 2010 that his party has really changed. His party’s adverse reaction to this policy might, however, undo such work.