Aid to our advantage
I do not much like the expression ‘British values’. There is something slightly pompous and self serving about claiming that universal values that many people support are somehow British. They are not – they are universal – and many decent people around the world support these same values, whether they be the rule of law, free speech, or the right to lead your life free of conflict and misery.
But what is certainly true is that throughout some extremely difficult and unhappy parts of the world, Britain has been a beacon of light at times of very great darkness. “By tackling these evils we can see that every penny of Britain’s development budget is spent in Britain’s national interest too.” I think of the way that Britain is always the first country to help at times of humanitarian catastrophe, whether in Africa or Asia, and not just in the poor world where, of course, resilience can be very low indeed. When the terrible earthquake in Japan struck in 2011, British firemen and women immediately rushed to help and rescue people.
Britain’s development budget (one of the best examples of public expenditure investing in the lives and futures of the British younger generation) confronts many of the international problems which loom over our future. Migration, climate change, terrorism, protectionism and the deep and abiding poverty and inequality which disfigures our world. By tackling these evils we can see that every penny of Britain’s development budget is spent in Britain’s national interest too.
It is hugely to our advantage that we help tackle the problems of conflict and grinding poverty. As well as making the poorest in the world safer and more prosperous, it does the same for Britain. Consider Somalia – a country as conflict ridden and dysfunctional as any in the world. Not long ago there were more British passport holders training in terrorist camps in Somalia than in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
By helping tackle conflict there and build a more accountable society – something which David Cameron’s 2012 initiatives undoubtedly helped begin – we make our own streets and cities safer too. This is a good example, incidentally, of what ‘Global Britain’ can mean. The truth is that aid, trade, and development are always in our interests as well as those we are seeking to help.
Were we to withdraw support in countries that play fast and loose with the human rights of their citizens, it is not the rulers and the powerful in those countries that would suffer, it is those whose human rights are already being abused upon whom we would be turning our back.
In countries where Britain has an international development programme, we do not work through governments which are corrupt, or where we would be unable to look our own taxpayers in the eye and assure them that their hard-earned funds were being well spent. We have a policy of zero tolerance towards corruption. That is why in so many countries we avoid such government mechanisms that do exist in favour of working through multilateral organisations, international charities, and non-governmental bodies, of which Britain has some of the best in the world.
When I was at the Department for International Development, we helped set up a fund designed to assist the poorest countries in negotiating trade deals. We did this because we had seen for ourselves, while in opposition, the disparity between wealthy countries engaging through the WTO and poorer ones. Rich country teams included many lawyers, accountants and experienced negotiators whereas poor countries were often represented only by one dedicated official with very limited resources. We concluded that this was not a good way to reach trade deals which should, after all, be to the benefit of both sides.
Negotiating good trade deals around the world post Brexit will not only be very important for Britain but also hugely to the advantage of the countries with whom we trade and for whom good trade deals will contribute both to our and their prosperity. And as poorer countries become more prosperous and develop a middle class with something to lose, the case for an independent legal system and fair treatment before the law, rather than at the whim of a warlord or corrupt politician, becomes ever stronger. And so it is that the concern for human rights and our ability to support freer trade and the rule of law becomes stronger, not weaker, through the propagation of aid, trade and development.
By Former Secretary of State for International Development, The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP