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Chris Bain: Don’t make Blair’s mistake: match rhetoric with reality for international development

Bain Chris Bain is the Director of CAFOD (Catholic Overseas Development Agency)

Ten years ago today, Tony Blair made his famous ‘Kaleidoscope’ speech to Labour’s party conference in Brighton, three weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

As David Cameron prepares for his own conference speech on Wednesday at a time of similar international upheaval, I hope he will reflect on the lessons – good and bad – he can learn from his predecessor.

Aside from brilliantly capturing the empathy the British people felt for the victims of 9/11 and their families, Tony Blair’s speech is primarily remembered as laying the ground for the aggressively interventionist foreign policy of his second term in office.

The genocide of Rwanda, he said, would not be allowed to happen today. The Taliban could give up Al-Qaeda or give up power. Iraq and Saddam were not mentioned in his speech, but the philosophical foundations for intervention there were clear.

And for those of us concerned with international development, there was a passionate commitment to marry the objectives of protecting security and spreading democracy with the need to deliver social and economic justice to “the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor.”

As we know, the reality never lived up fully to the rhetoric.

Labour’s world leadership and domestic commitment on international development could not be faulted, and progress was undoubtedly made as a result.

But they could never persuade even a ‘coalition of the willing’ to take the decisive global action required to tackle the causes of global poverty and injustice.

And at times, that objective came a distant third behind the perceived interests of global security and economic growth.

Worst of all, in Afghanistan and Iraq themselves, the very failure to combine the removal of tyrants and the installation of democracy with genuine social and economic progress for ordinary Afghans and Iraqis left them with the trappings of freedom but without its full benefits, to quote the Kaleidoscope speech, “in the broader sense of each individual having the economic and social freedom to develop their potential to the full.”

In Afghanistan, at least at the outset, it was largely left to NGOs like CAFOD, working with local partners, to invest in building up civil society; working with poor, farming communities on alternatives to opium production; and empowering women to take leadership roles.

These were the type of essential investments required to give communities a stake in democracy and bring about long-term change in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Whereas too often, the last government and their international counterparts focused on the ‘big wins’ and short-term gains, encapsulated in the early obsession with oil pipelines in Iraq.

Ten years on, and – as Tony Blair put it – “the pieces are in flux” again: the old certainties and some of the old rulers of the Arab world have been overthrown; the global economy is in turmoil, and – as always – it is the most vulnerable people in the poorest countries who have most to lose.

David Cameron comes to Manchester this week with the world’s media praising him for the leadership he has shown in Libya.

He has embraced a refined version of the interventionism expounded by Tony Blair – with broader international support and a constrained military role – and it has so far been judged a success.

The question is what comes next?

In Libya, certainly, we are told that the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan have been learned: that reconstruction, economic progress and the engagement of communities will be a priority not an afterthought.

But if David Cameron wants to learn all the lessons of the past decade, he should return to the Kaleidoscope speech, see the scale of Tony Blair’s ambitions, and ask himself why they were not achieved.

He must embrace what Tony Blair appeared to recognise in that speech: that freedom from tyrants and terrorists is not an end in itself; it is just one of the essential means to reach the true end – that all individuals in every country should have the social freedom and economic opportunity to flourish as human beings.

If we accept that truth, it follows that – while the Libyan people have necessarily occupied much of the Government’s attention in recent months – it should be no less a priority now to focus on the millions of individuals already living in democracies, already free from tyranny, but whose freedom to flourish is crushed instead by poverty, hunger, illiteracy, disease, fear of violence, the corruption of government officials and of multinational businesses, and indeed the impact of climate change.

David Cameron’s leadership on Libya, his strong personal stance on international development, and the global focus on Britain in 2012 all give him an opportunity.

By putting the offer of social and economic justice at the heart of his foreign policy, he can show how democracy and freedom can be made to work for the poor; by addressing the structural causes of global poverty rather than just its symptoms, he can point the way to a developing world moving beyond reliance on aid; and by investing in civil society, small business and female empowerment in the poorest countries, he can help create the long-term change they need.

To quote Tony Blair from 10 years ago, “This is a moment to seize.”

David Cameron does not want to look back in 10 years and regret wasting it.


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