PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


The Role of International Development in a Changing World: The Perspective from Britain

Speech prepared for delivery at the Council on Foreign Relations (Washington DC) by Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for International Development

July 12, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations


Thank you Gene for those kind words. It’s an honour to be here at the Council on Foreign Relations, an institution that has done so much to provoke debate and promote understanding of foreign policy for more than seventy years. And it’s a particular pleasure to be introduced by Gene. We first met when he was Chair of President Clinton’s National Economic Council. More recently I’ve come to admire his tireless advocacy for the cause of education through his Chairmanship of the US Education for All Campaign. And if that wasn’t enough I should also confess a deep admiration – and not a little envy – of Gene’s work as contributing writer to the West Wing. There is seemingly no end to this man’s talent! It is also good to be here in the United States, a country I know well and greatly admire, having lived, studied and worked at the University of Pennsylvania and here in Washington in 1988 and 1989. That Summer I spent working here on the Hill was an extraordinary time, coming as it did between the seismic events of Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was then that Francis Fukuyama first made his claim in the pages of Foreign Affairs that we were witnessing the end of history. And it is the character of that post cold war world he described and the consequences for my Department’s core mission – the eradication of poverty – to which I direct my remarks today. That year – 1989 – saw the ushering in of what Tom Friedman has called the ‘flat world’ – in which the division and stasis that had characterised the previous 40 years gave way to the interconnectedness and fluidity we see today. This new “world without walls” is indeed in many ways very different to the world that preceded it. Framework And so today I want to begin my remarks by posing 4 questions, the answers to which are, I believe, essential to the mission of tackling global poverty. Firstly, what does the world look like at the beginning of the 21st Century? Secondly, how we achieve change in this world? Thirdly, and more specifically, what must be the role of international development in that process of change? And finally, how do we work together to secure that change? A complex world So, first, what does the world like at the start of the 21st Century? If you took your world view purely from reading newspaper headlines, you would find two dominating narratives seeking to make sense of today’s world. First, terrorism and security, and second: climate change. And of course, these are significant forces in our changing world. The global reach of terrorism at the start of the 21st Century is unprecedented. Disparate groups, claiming to be part of a common struggle, united in a willingness to maim and murder, have surfaced in countries as diverse far apart as Afghanistan, Kenya and the United Kingdom. The threat is real. Tomorrow I will fly back home through Glasgow Airport, the scene of the most recent incident in the UK. Unsurprisingly our papers in Britain, the weekend before last were filled with headlines about the latest attacks. Yet by last weekend our papers were covering a different story – the simultaneous Live Earth concerts taking place in London and across the world organised to warn of the risks of climate change. That coming together of people across continents reflects not only growing concerns but also a growing scientific consensus that climate change needs to be addressed. From the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the National Academies of Science the weight of scientific evidence accumulates almost by the month. And if the causes are becoming increasingly clear, so too are the consequences. So, yes, climate change and terrorism are powerful forces. But the scale of the attention they receive in the media can obscure other powerful forces which are shaping our world and which receive far less comment. Let’s take just two examples: migration and population growth. When I met UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon yesterday, he characterised our time as the ‘age of mobility’. Every year, more than 190 million people leave their shores in search of opportunity and a better life. That’s more than the population of Brazil. Indeed, if all of the migrants from just one year founded a new country, it would be the fifth largest in the world. Not least as an elected politician, I recognise there is a tendency to see this mobility as simply a threat. But the changing patterns of travel and work are having a profound effect socially and economically on the world’s poor. The remittances sent home by migrants last year alone were triple that of global aid flows. Indeed in some countries up to a third of families now rely on remittances to keep them out of poverty. And this migration trend is set to accelerate, as the world becomes more populous. Between now and 2050, nine countries alone will account for nearly half of the world’s population growth. Only one – the US – is in the developed world. So, put simply, the greatest population growth will occur in the countries least able to support it: economically, they are the poorest; politically, they are among the most unstable; environmentally, they are among the most marginal. And this population growth increasingly means urbanisation. This year, for the first time in human history, half the world’s population lives in cities. Indeed in Africa and Asia, the number of people living in cities grows, on average, by 1 million each week. Progress on the MDGs So it is against such a rapidly changing backdrop that last week, the UN published a report showing progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. And halfway to the 2015 deadline, there has been some clear progress. Since 1990, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty – the equivalent of a dollar a day – has fallen from 30% to 20%. Thanks to the work of Gene and education campaigners around the world, nearly 90 per cent of children are now enrolled in primary school. More people now have access to treatment for HIV/AIDS: a thirteen-fold increase in sub–Saharan Africa alone in the past 3 years. This progress is to be praised. But it is only part of the story. Only one of the eight world regions featured in the UN’s report is on track to achieve all of the MDGs. The decline in global poverty is mostly due to rapid economic growth in Asia. Africa is still most off-track. And although the UN found that the number of desperately poor people living in sub-Saharan Africa has ‘levelled off’, there are still 315 million people on the continent living on less than a dollar a day. Hunger still strikes the continent – 30% of children under five are underweight – a figure hardly changed since 1990. And despite huge progress in education, today there are still 77 million girls and boys around the world who will never get the chance to go to school. As a father of two young children just starting out in education, these facts strike a particular chord. And as father who is incredibly proud of his three year old daughter I am particularly conscious that the face of poverty in developing countries is overwhelmingly female. A disproportionate number of women live in poverty and progress on reducing maternal mortality, for example, is actually being reversed in some areas of Africa. The economic, social and political position of women in many countries is actively preventing us from reducing child and maternal mortality, and stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. Empowering women must be a priority for us all. Access to better – and safer – sexual and reproductive health resources are essential. So as the latest UN Report makes clear, the development challenge facing us is daunting. Meeting the Millennium Development Goals will take a massive effort from developed and developing countries. As developed countries we must live up to the promises we made as donor countries at the EU, G8 and at the UN. But notwithstanding the real importance of such external factors – whether economic, political or environmental - the future of the poorest people in the world will depend critically on what happens within their own countries. It is the actions of their political leaders, institutions and citizens that are of central importance. The potential of globalisation, directed well, to lower barriers and extend opportunity is real. But these potential opportunities matter little today to the citizens of Zimbabwe, who continue to be subjected to a brutal and failing regime. Today in Zimbabwe, a single banana costs fifteen times more than a four bedroom house did seven years ago. So, of course, to progress, countries must develop comprehensive plans to build infrastructure, and improve access to basic services like education, healthcare and water and sanitation. But good governance matters and is, and will remain, fundamental to success. Put simply, for all the discussions of globalisation, the actions of states continue to matter. But equally they must face up to the new imperatives. In the Twentieth Century a country’s might was too often measured in what they could destroy. In the Twenty First, strength should be measured by what we can build together. Our response – an alliance of opportunity And given the interconnected nature of the challenges we face, I would argue that we have to simultaneously be fighting to end poverty, to secure trade justice, and to tackle conflict and climate change as well as working to defeat terrorism and ensure the preservation of our security. Indeed I want to suggest to you today that it is no longer enough to make the familiar case for development, reflecting the “virtuous circle” between economic growth and social justice; a familiar dialogue between the politicians and the development community. This relationship got us the historic aid commitments we have now, and a consensus within the development community on some of the key actions we need to take. But I want to suggest today that in order to build on the progress we have achieved to date and to tackle global poverty anew, we must now advance the case for change by better articulating the commonly held values around which we must rally the whole international community to our cause. We must form new alliances, based on these common values; ones not just to protect us from the world but ones which reach out to the world. A new alliance of opportunity. And politics as well as policy will be the key to making progress. We need to demonstrate by our word and our actions that we are: internationalist not isolationist; multilateralist not unilateralist; active not passive; and driven by core values consistently applied, not special interests. Isolationism simply does not work in an interdependent world. There is no security or prosperity at home unless we deal with the global challenges of security, globalization, climate change, disease and poverty. We must recognise these challenges and champion an internationalist approach – seeking shared solutions to the problems we face. Multilateralist, not unilateralist means a rules-based international system. Just as we need the rule of law at home to have civilization so we need rules abroad to ensure global civilization. We know self-interest and mutual interest are inextricably linked. National interests can be best advanced and protected through collective action. There are few global challenges that do not require the active engagement of the US. We need a global community able to act together through modern effective institutions, including a reformed UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO and EU. And we need to act – rather than be passive. We must reiterate our responsibility to act to address the big challenges of our time – poverty, human rights abuse, climate change and genocide. It can be right, when certain conditions are met, to intervene in the affairs of countries to prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, humanitarian suffering or threats to democracy. We believe that our collective responsibility to protect individuals transcends the right of nations to absolute sovereignty. And, finally, we must be driven by core values, not special interests. Our place in the world depends on us making choices based on values – values like opportunity, responsibility, justice. It’s these values that inform our enduring commitment to human rights, democracy and good governance. It is these values that call us to ensure that power, wealth and opportunity are distributed more equitably. And it is these values that remind us that we have a responsibility to act as global stewards of the environment for the sake of future generations. Social justice is an inter-generational as well as an international issue. Winning support for this approach is not easy. We must all work to make them the accepted norm. This means persuading political leaders, indeed community leaders, faith leaders and civic leaders to actively support these principles – whether they are in Europe or the US, China, India or South Africa. The role of an alliance of opportunity in development For I believe reaching out and articulating not only our values, but also our vision for the future, holds the key to securing progress on some of the most immediate challenges we face in seeking to reduce poverty: Increasing growth; Dealing with climate change; Tackling conflict; Creating an effective international system. Let me take each in turn. Growth & Trade Firstly, increasing growth. Just as employment is the surest path out of personal poverty, so economic growth is the surest path out of poverty for nations and regions. East Asia lifted 500m people out of poverty since the 80s while its income doubled and trade trebled. But simultaneously in Sub-Saharan Africa poverty increased as the region saw its share of world trade shrink to just 0.5%. Trade is crucial to growth and improving the income of the poor. Indeed no country has reduced poverty in the last 30 years without also increasing trade. That is why Gordon Brown as Prime Minister has asked me to chair the Cabinet Committee on trade policy and work to align our policies on aid, debt reduction and trade policy. For he understands that there are two goals that must be pursued simultaneously: a more level global playing field and the capacity to trade. Delivering the promise of the Doha round remains our priority. The difficulties are real but so too are the potential gains. And while the international rules are vital, so too is national capacity If today you look at a map of Africa, you will see that the roads and rail connect resource-rich areas to the coast, rather than joining up the most populous areas, a product of the continent’s colonial history. So it is no surprise that the cost of moving a container between Accra and Lagos is three times the cost of moving it to Europe, and that transport costs in Africa are twice that of Asia. And developing countries can and must also improve their readiness for business by tackling unnecessary bureaucracy. It takes 153 days to start a business in Maputo, but 3 days in Toronto. What message does that send to investors in Mozambique? Climate Change But even if we get such improvements at country level and an international trade deal that benefits developing countries, the economic growth and poverty reduction that it brings could be taken away by the consequences of climate change. Climate change is the greatest long term threat we face. And as Nick Stern’s seminal report on the economics of climate change makes clear, the cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of taking appropriate and timely action. Globally, we must move towards a post-Kyoto framework based on the understanding in the UN’s climate change convention – that we share common, but differentiated responsibilities. Fundamentally we require a global cap, with a target for reducing emissions. In order to be meaningful that will have to be translated into national targets as well. The rich world needs to be at the forefront with other major emitters then playing their part. Again as Stern argues, within a global framework carbon trading has a fundamental role to play as a cost effective mechanism to deliver emissions reductions. It also serves to create a carbon market. Today’s carbon market is worth some $9 billion, but could grow to between $50-100 billion. Used appropriately this can deliver investment in low carbon economic growth. Alongside this, the whole international development system, in particular the international financial institutions, need to ratchet up support for developing countries wanting to pursue a low carbon path to economic development. Gordon Brown announced in March that Britain would create a new £800 million Environment Transformation Fund. I today discussed with Bob Zoellick, the new President of the World Bank, how we can take this work forward, not least because the cruel irony of climate change is that the countries least responsible for it will be worst affected. Greater variations of rainfall, combined with rising sea levels, will lead to more extreme weather, particularly in parts of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. The UK is helping to carry out research into climate change adaptation in Africa. We’re also providing practical help to people who are already affected by it. DFID is spending £50 million help 32,000 families who live on the shifting sands of the Char lands in Bangladesh. We are helping them raise their homes above flood level, helping them to stay safe and build for the future. Conflict and fragile states But if climate change has the potential to sweep away development gains made in poor countries, that destructive power is matched by the effects of conflict. Today the UK stands together with the US in confronting international terrorism and confronting violent insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. But right around the globe, conflict and security challenges threaten development. By 2010, half of the world’s poorest people will be in countries at risk of, or recovering from conflict. Civil war costs on average $54 billion to a country’s economy and means an average 20 years in lost development. International development therefore has a role in reducing violent conflict, firstly by investing more to prevent it. Research shows that $2 spent on conflict prevention means saving on average, $8 that the international community will have to spend later on dealing with a conflict. We must also make our response to armed conflict more effective, and provide more practical and political support to peace processes – as we have done in Burundi and the in DRC, where we and others, including the UN through MONUC, supported extraordinary elections that have led, so far, to a peaceful outcome and the best chance the DRC has had for two generations to build something better. Right now the international community faces a test of its willingness to resolve conflict and protect the lives of millions. The UN has described the situation in Darfur as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world . Over two million people are displaced. As many as four million – two thirds of the population – are dependent on international aid for food and basic needs. We – the United Nations and the international community – have to act. If the concept of our Responsibility to Protect is to mean anything, it must mean something in Darfur. Building an effective international system Yet international action on the kind of challenges I have described requires effective international institutions. The international system we have today was created largely to operate in the world as it was in the second half of the twentieth century, not the first half of the twenty-first. So in the face of new challenges we must renew our international institutions. The UN’s legitimacy as a global actor is unparalleled. But over time, fragmentation, duplication and excessive competition for resources within the UN have reduced the impact of its development work. That is why the report of the UN High Level Panel on System Wide Coherence is so important – and why we are so keen to see its recommendations implemented. To take one example, the UN has 23 agencies working on water and has had to create a whole new body – UN Water – just to coordinate them. Everyone is partly responsible, so no one is fully responsible. There should be a unified UN presence in countries, based around a single programme, with one leader, one office and one budget. The World Bank plays a vital role in providing development assistance to poor countries and in gathering knowledge about development. Its relationship with developing countries should be one of partnership not patronage. That will require more dialogue in country and devolved decision making, and better representation for developing countries on the Bank’s board. The Bank also needs to ensure its analysis and advice is fully informed by the emerging thinking on climate change. Conclusion For more than fifty years institutions like the World Bank, the IMF, and indeed the United Nations have reflected the determination of a previous generation of visionary statesmen to secure the peace and build anew out the ruins of war. As I have sought to suggest in my remarks this afternoon, these early years of this young century present new challenges to a new generation. So I end where I began – by recognising the urgency of addressing the needs of the world’s poor. Given the inter-related challenges we face, it is not only morally right but a political imperative. For we can’t say our generation doesn’t have the financial resources to eradicate global poverty. We can’t say our generation doesn’t have the technological capability and scientific know-how to end needless suffering. And we can’t say our generation does not have reason to do it. It is up to us. It is our shared responsibility. It is our shared opportunity. And, working together, I believe it can be our shared achievement.

More on This Topic


The G8 Summit: Three Things to Know

Speaker: Terra Lawson-Remer

The G8 meeting at Camp David will focus on food security and advancing political transitions in the Middle East and North Africa, while the...