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Message to Cameron: We must remain a global leader on development

Standing outside No 10 Downing Street for the first time, Britain’s new Prime Minister paid a clear compliment to Gordon Brown and the outgoing government.

Compared with a decade ago, David Cameron said, “this country is more compassionate abroad”. The observation is fair and the compliment well deserved.

Over these years, the British people have demonstrated a real and growing concern for the world’s poor and have contributed generously to humanitarian appeals like Haiti or Myanmar and to longer-term development work in Africa and Asia.

Critically, the willingness of the British public to give has been matched by a willingness on the part of the British Government to lead.

It’s hard to remember now, but before 1997, overseas development was tucked away in a corner of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Aid was too often used to serve short-term political interests. And there were high profile scandals, like the use of British aid money to fund the Pergau Dam in Malaysia, a policy ruled “illegal” by the High Court.

Things have changed. It is not an accident that Britain is now regarded as a global leader on international development, that this country has trebled its development spend over this period, or that development issues have featured so often and so prominently on the agendas of the G8.

This has required serious effort and commitment and a willingness to invest political capital to achieve progress.

As a special adviser in the Department for International Development in Labour’s first term, I know that Gordon Brown was central to this shift.

As Chancellor he was an early champion of international debt relief. He also allocated substantial resources to the overseas aid budget.

He and Tony Blair secured an ambitious agreement at the G8 Gleneagles summit in 2005. This included persuading other nations to agree to increase their aid and wider support for Africa.

While some have failed to fulfil their Gleneagles commitments, global aid has risen sharply – and UK pressure and leadership was key to this.

More recently, as Prime Minister, Brown was one of the few international leaders to highlight the profound impact of the global financial and economic crisis on the world’s poorest countries and the need for coordinated action.

He was also a strong opponent of health user fees (that is, charging poor people for health) and, over the past year, he worked to encourage governments in developing countries to remove these fees by offering additional funds.

Sierra Leone is one country where this is now happening – and hundreds of thousands of poor people in Sierra Leone could get access to better healthcare as a result of this.

Of course, Brown’s approach to development is not beyond criticism. Some of his development efforts were diminished by an excessive focus on making new announcements or launching new initiatives, and there was too little attention given to issues of governance, conflict or human rights.

That said, there is probably no previous British Prime Minister who was as personally engaged with and committed to the development agenda – or one who spent more time on it.

Regardless of party politics, Gordon Brown and the outgoing government deserve real credit for the priority they gave to development and for what they managed to achieve over their period in office.

It is not an exaggeration to say that there are tens of thousands of children alive today, as well as hundreds of thousands in school, who would not be but for a British government that made international development such a high priority.

So the challenge facing David Cameron and his new government is to build on this legacy, and to further strengthen Britain’s contribution to tackling global poverty and injustice.

Cameron has made a very welcome commitment that development will be safeguarded from the savage cuts likely to fall on other parts of the public sector.

Those of us who work in this area must hold the new government to this and support them in explaining to the public why development is so important and what is being achieved for relatively modest cost.

Most of all we must ensure that Britain remains a global leader on international development over the next five years, much as it has been over the last thirteen.

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