One World Con: The Conservatives’ ideas on Development are Dangerous

9.2 million children die before the age of five each year. Two million die on the day they are born – and 500,000 women die at childbirth. A third of children in Africa suffer brain damage as a result of malnutrition. 72 million children are missing out on an education. Every day 30,000 children die from easily-preventable diseases. That’s 21 children every minute. 33 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS. There are 11 million AIDS orphans in Africa. Every hour, 300 people become infected with HIV and 225 people die from AIDS…and 25 of these are children.

These bald facts are an insult to our humanity. Every life is precious. Everyone has unique talents and abilities. Every time the candle of life is snuffed out by disease, we all suffer. Every time ignorance triumphs over enlightenment, we are all injured. Every time a child is born into a cycle of poverty, we are all made poorer.

So opens the Conservative Party new Green Paper on International Development, One World Conservatism. These two paragraphs read like an accusation. They are contrasted with the Millennium Development Goals set out by the UN. With the 2015 deadline looming they seem wildly ambitious contrasted with such continued suffering.

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

The Conservatives pledge a new approach to International Development should they win the next election. As this looks almost inevitable, it is important to examine what they propose as it will affect millions of lives.

What’s in the Report?

Contradictions, Choosing Winners and Losers, Gimmicks: “Bhutan’s got Talent”, Turing up in pair of flip-flops offering to build a school, Vouchers, Microfinance, Rejecting Universal Education, Rejecting Universal Healthcare, Fixation on Private Sector Wealth Creation, The Sanctity of Property Rights, Fighting the Wrong Battles, Some good points made it though

Horror stories abound on what was to be in the Tory plans. Although the Conservatives have pledged to dedicate 0.7% of GDP to Aid, it appears that appeals to populism and concessions to the right might have deprived the Department for International Development (DfID) of its autonomy. For example, the idea that an X-Factor style competition could determine where aid is spent is as horrifying as it is nonsensical.


I don’t think it is fair to judge the whole Tory policy on one sound-byte so I have waited to get a copy of the report before posting on it. To be honest, I have to agree with Paul Cotterill that it is “broadly well intentioned.” However, if executed I likewise believe it will do a lot more harm than good.


Paul does an excellent job illustrating the contradictions within the report. They perhaps giving a hint to the internal battles which rage within the Tory party when it comes to International Development. Or maybe Paul’s explanation, that the report is the result of a some junior staffers, Google and a handful of Tory rhetoric, is more likely. The contradictions come thick and fast, and substantially undermine the reports credibility.

Then there’s how work will be funded.

Apparently, funds will be paid in arrears, to make sure the job gets done:  ’We will adopt and champion the promising idea of ‘cash on delivery’ aid’ (p. 18).

Except that it won’t.  On the very same page, provision is made for payment in advance: ‘And we will need to ensure that developing countries are able to finance the up-front investments necessary to achieve the desired outputs’.

That’s clear then.

Choosing Winners and Losers

One of the ways in which the Conservatives claim to be  able to improve on Labour’s DfID is greater efficiency. This means not only an inevitable rhetorical flourish bemoaning Labour’s bloated bureaucracy but also an “[immediate] review [on] which of the 108 countries the Department for International Development currently gives aid to should continue to receive it.”

This should raise eyebrows. The full criteria for this review are not given but their target is clear. Spending $20bn on the Olympics was a step too far.

We will end aid to China, which has sufficient resources to fund its own development.

This may be one of the concessions which the right as wrung out of Cameron’s compassionate conservatives. Ben Brogan seems particularly pleased that aid to China is to be ended. However, it is utterly immoral, given all their prior grandstanding, to end aid to China.

From the IMF Datamapper. Prices shown at contemporary dollar value. In 1990 dollars China's current GDP per capita today stands at $2,172. In 1990 dollars China's GDP per capita in 2006 stood at $1,200

From the IMF Datamapper. Prices shown at contemporary dollar value. In 1990 dollars China's current GDP per capita ($3,622) is $2,172. In 1990 dollars China's GDP per capita in 2006 ($2,021) was $1,200. The relevance of these figures will become obvious below.

China and the Chinese are often treated as a political football. Those wishing to vacillate on Climate Change can use China’s pollution as an excuse to do nothing. It appears that the suffering of the Chinese people in sweatshops, mines and factories is now to be rewarded with a banner which reads “Mission Accomplished.”

Please allow me to put this move into perspective, in 1750 England’s GDP per capita (likewise measured in 1990 dollars) stood at $1,328. In 2006 China’s per capita GDP stood $128 below this. Today, on the brink of the worst global recession in a generation, China’s GDP pet capita is still only half of what the UK had achieved by the end of the 19th Century. The Tories announce that “Every life is precious” but when those live are collectively labelled “the People’s Republic of China” their well-being becomes a necessary sacrifice.

Gimmicks -“Bhutan’s got Talent”

The worst thing in this paper are the Gimmicks. They are not necessarily the most damaging proposals here, but they are a massive waste of resources and time. The MyAid section of the report is likely to be dropped, having been roundly denounced in the press and by charities. But I still feel it is instructive to show what was considered good enough to be included in the official Green Paper. The section is copied verbatim (pp 23-24)

“I think it’s a basic human instinct to want to help. But sometimes you just don’t know where the money’s going.” – Member of the British public

We are determined to strengthen public support for aid by giving individual British taxpayers a greater say over how and where it is spent. We will establish a new MyAid fund, worth £40 million in its first year. Every taxpayer will be able to log on to the MyAid website and view details of ten ongoing DFID-funded aid programmes, and vote for which one they think should receive the extra money. The options will include programmes run directly by DFID, as well as those run by respected NGOs. The Fund will then be distributed between the ten programmes in proportion to how many votes they  receive. For example, if 25 per cent of people vote for the DFID programme in Malawi, that programme would receive 25 per cent of the Fund – £10 million. Everyone who votes will be kept up to date with regular email updates about the progress of ‘their’ project.

We will consult carefully on the technical aspects of the voting system. The projects will be chosen so as to illustrate the range of activities in which DFID and NGOs are involved and the variety of countries they work in. This will increase public understanding of, interest in and support for Britain’s aid programme – and create a clear incentive for DFID to demonstrate and improve the quality and impact of its work. If this idea proves successful, we will scale it up in future years. One option would be to set the level of the fund so that it equals the total amount raised by Comic Relief.

Gimmicks – Turing up in pair of flip-flops offering to build a school…

Worryingly, there are plans to use “part of our growing aid budget to create opportunities for more young people to carry out voluntary work in developing countries as part of our plan for National Citizen Service.”

The developing world has a surplus of people compared to the number of jobs available. Sending middle-class kids to build schools is only depriving the most needy of a job which could help feed their family. The experience will be fantastic for those that go but utterly useless as a development strategy.

Gimmicks – Vouchers

On page 25, the paper suggests the introduction of a voucher scheme similar that suggested for schools in the UK. Individual aid recipients will be given vouchers or cash directly and will be able to choose between various aid agencies and NGOs. This is designed to increase competition and efficiency. It will be a disaster.

In vast swathes of the world there are no aid agencies operating and in other places there are not enough to provide the choice these vouchers imply.

Where these vouchers are introduced there will simply be an increase in internal NGO bureaucracy to process the collection of funding, an increase in the marketing budget to the detriment of real work and a duplication of capacity as various agencies overreach themselves. In short, vouchers are a disaster waiting to happen.

Gimmicks – Microfinance

CoinsTheir plans to introduce Microfinance funding can be welcomed. Microfinance involves lending small unsecured loans to those who could never get credit from a bank, slum dwellers, women and propertyless entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, Microfinance will only ever be a palliative, not a cure for the poverty of the developing world. By focusing on Microfinace the Tories seem to sidestep the problems posed by volatile transnational capital flows which those in developing are confronted with.

As a poverty reducing strategy its results are relatively ambiguous. An article in The Economist goes to lengths to examine the validity of the claim that Microfinance reduces poverty. Of 104 slums in Hydrabad, India, half were given access to Microfinance and half were not. The results are interesting as “there was no effect on average household consumption, at least within a year to 18 months of the experiment.”

Increasing the ease with which the entrepreneurial poor can get access to investment did produce some positive results, but not the sort of change which the Tories seem to expect.

Rejecting Universal Education

It is a truism for the Tories that the state does not have to be the sole provider of education. They plan to extend this logic to their International Development strategy. (p 35)

Unfortunately, given the Tories record of education I have to be sceptical about their intentions. Presented as a method for fighting “special interests” which oppose improvements in educations, it appears that their proposals are more interested in fostering a small well-educated cadre at the expense of a comprehensive universal education system.

The Tories want to help ensure a universal service, but they have turned their back on the state led education and knowledge dispersion which saw the creation of educated working and middle classes in the UK, Korea, Germany and Japan.

Rejecting Universal Education

Red CrossThe similarities between their attitudes towards education and healthcare are obvious. A (un)healthy dose of private investment and a promise that “[w]e will not insist that developing countries follow the exact path that we in Britain have taken – that is a choice for them to make.” (p37)

Evidence of another concession which the right have won from Cameron. The language is clear, there is no way Conservative funds will be used to support a comprehensive health system, not beyond malaria nets and rehydration therapy (although the £500m dedicated to fighting Malaria will produce real results).

Fixation on Private Sector Wealth Creation

It will sound odd to the right but the Private Sector is not the only wealth creator. Moreover, with the partial exception on England, the Government of most now developed Countries played a large and crucial role in their development.

In Germany, when it was attempting to catch up with England, the state directed bank lending towards certain industries. In early 20th century Russia, the Government provided investment funds directly to entrepreneurs to foster development. In Japan the countries first railways were constructed by the state. In general, and despite some lingering disagreements, development in South East Asia must be seen as a success of activist trade, investment and technology policies pursued by the state.

Contrary to popular conception, the later a country is trying to develop, the more vital the role of the state becomes in fostering entrepreneurship, building infrastructure, and managing trade. And there are no policies designed to foster this autonomous activist state in the Tories’ Green Paper.

The Sanctity of Property Rights

The Conservatives pledge to uphold property rights, however, sometimes violating property rights can lead to positive developmental outcomes. To quote Ha Joon-Chang:

Security of property rights cannot be regarded as something good in itself. There are many examples in history in which the preservation of certain property rights has proved harmful for economic development and where the violation of certain existing property rights (and the creation of new ones) was actually beneficial for economic development.

Hence, what mattes for economic development is not simply the nature of all existing property rights regardless of their nature, but which property rights are protected under which conditions. If there are groups who are able to utilize certain existing properties better than their current owners, it may be better for the society not to protect existing property rights, but to create new ones that transfer the properties concerned to the former groups.

For example, violating the property rights to the landed aristocracy in Latin America could provoke a huge increase in income for people who live in rural areas. So too, violating the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies has extended thousand or millions of lives as HIV medication has become more affordable.

Fighting the Wrong Battles

handshakeThis is a dirty little secret. Whisper it: Corrupt countries get rich too. But you couldn’t tell this from the Conservatives’ determination to withdraw all funding from development projects if any corruption is uncovered (p 17).

This is a controversial position. I understand that the views expressed here may one day be quoted out of context so I would at least like to more fully explain before I am attacked. I believe an accountable democratic government is a basic human right, I also believe it is the best form of government for humane development.

However, the historical record of now developed countries like the UK, Japan or South Korea show that an democratically accountable government is not necessary to develop successfully. By concentrating on corruption the Tories are continuing to waste resources and direct attention from the real developmental tasks at hand.

The UK wasn’t a functioning democracy until 1928, when full suffrage was introduced. In Switzerland this stage wasn’t reached until 1971. The development of these countries’ economies certainly suffered as a result, but their successes still give lie to the idea that democracy and development go hand in hand.

As Japan and Korea developed, corruption was common and democracy mainly a sham. The state and private sector worked hand in hand, favours were exchanged for favours and nepotism was rife. However, the ties which this fostered, as corrupt and unfair as they were, produced economic miracles nearly unsurpassed in human history.

Some good points made it though

I do not want to pretend that nothing in this report is good. There are some concrete positive steps proposed which are to be welcomed. For example, “If elected, a new Conservative Government will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income as aid.”

0.7% sounds small, but it can make a massive difference. The efficiency of the methods selected by the Tories leaves a great deal to be desired, but at least part of their programme is moving in the right direction. Likewise, if they are genuine about their commitment to support steps relieving Heavily Indebted Poor Countries of their debt, then that is another really positive step.

However, some other parts of the report contain promises which appear to pay little more than lip service to some very important issues, but if followed through can make a big difference. The section of Arms Control on page 45 is worryingly brief, and proposes an international settlement, rather than positive moves a new administration could instigate immediately. A focus on conflict resolution is fantastic too (p 42) as poverty and global inequality impact on  Britain’s security. This angle will make a ring-fenced DfID budget more palatable to the rest of the Party and may help safeguard a vulnerable department. However, again, I am unsure if the means proposed are going to achieve the ends to avoid conflict.

Their support for Fair Trade appears like a brief flirtation with a fashionable idea, rather than an ideological or pragmatic commitment. Much like their plans for Microfinance and putting all of DfID on the web. One thing which I hope will not be a gimmick is their commitment to reproductive health and to women’s rights (p 37). Poverty disproportionately affect women and a successful International Development strategy has to be gendered.

There are some genuinely positive steps proposed, but again the worry which I have is how effectively they can be implemented.  For example investment in Infrastructure is vital (p 35). But by insisting it is all contracted out to private companies there is a real danger that the roads will appear but that money will simply be exchanged between a western government and a western firm, without the money reaching the people who need it.

Likewise, the proposal to support both a Green (agricultural) and a Blue (water use) revolution in Africa is one step which could help lift millions out of poverty and dependency. (p34) But despite it being an essential part of a sustainable development strategy, the methods proposed above just do not tally with the expected results.

Perhaps one area where we can rely on the Tories to be ideologically and pragmatically aligned with the developing world, is the reduction of tariffs in the EU (p 30). They know it will get British people cheaper food (this is vital as they will be cutting state expenditure) and will increase the income of developing nations.

A Pernicious lie Takes Centre Stage

This report is a failure. There are more which could be teased out however, I hope that I have provided a more than adequate summary of the shortcomings of this report.

The lie which the Tories use to prop up their policies is that “Capitalism and development was Britain’s gift to the world.” It is ironic that this paper which is so quick to invoke history is so blind to the lessons that might have drawn from it.

Capitalism has led to huge increases in productivity, wealth and living standards. But it is not the free market that has led to countries becoming wealthier. Capitalism has only taken hold and produced this development when it is embedded within a state and society which directs it towards this task.

This is what the Tories have ignored when they focused on Gimmicks, the private sector and popularity contests in their hurriedly written Green Paper. One World Conservatism is a well intentioned but fatally flawed scheme.

9 thoughts on “One World Con: The Conservatives’ ideas on Development are Dangerous

    1. Aww… shucks.

      There’s plenty more information to fill this post out, but at 3,000 words this was already long enough. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job destroying a quite badly thought through Green Paper.

      If anyone reading this has any specific questions on what I’ve said, I’d welcome a chance to expand on it.

    1. True that, but I’m not convinced that a voucher system can be properly implemented given the weakness of Third World/preindustrial/developing states. There’s a much larger bank of codified knowledge on how to run public schools and set up a start led education system than on

      As Britain was industrialising private schools outnumbered public ones but I’m not sure that this is replicable in the new developing world.

      I’m not particularly attached to state education (see this on propaganda, but I think the state will need to take a big role because it is difficult to get the coordination necessary for a rapidly changing economy through private education.

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