Douglas Alexander: International development is both a moral cause and a common cause

Douglas Alexander MP


The following is a summary of the speech I’ve just given to Co-operative Party Conference in Edinburgh.

The Co-operative Party has a long and proud history and a strong and vital association with the Labour Party. The creation of the Department for International Development and the international leadership that Britain has shown over the last decade would not have happened without the efforts of people of conscience and concern who drive the Co-operative movement. It was a broad progressive movement, that put a quarter of a million people on the streets of Gleneagles in 2005, that advanced the cause of Make Poverty History and that led to debt cancellation for the world’s poorest countries.

But today, our international progressive movement stands at a critical juncture. While millions have been lifted out of poverty over the last decade, much of the progress we have seen is now imperilled. The global recession and the climate crisis threaten to turn back the development gains we have made.

The last decade has seen real achievements in the fight against poverty:

* Aid increases and debt cancellation have helped to get 40 million more children into school.

* The number of people with access to AIDS treatment has increased from just 100,000 to over 3 million.

* The proportion of the world’s population living in poverty has fallen from a third to a quarter.

Yet it is clear – with nine million children dying each year, 70 million denied the opportunity to go to school, and a billion people around the world without enough food – that the world remains far from meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals.

The global recession threatens to trap as many as 90 million people in poverty – which would push back progress towards the first Millennium Development Goal – the goal to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger – by as much as 3 years. The likely impact of the economic crisis is a stark reminder that the gains made in moving towards the Millennium Development Goals can be fragile.

Those gains are also threatened by the advance of climate change. The dramatic rise of droughts in the summer and floods in the winter are destroying the crops that people rely on. And if temperatures continue to rise at current levels, an extra 600 million people will be affected by malnutrition by the end of the century.

Faced with these challenges, we are keeping the promises we have made to the world’s poorest people.

Half the UK’s global bilateral aid will be invested in basic public services – in health and in education. We will help to get 8 million children into school across Africa and we will help save the lives of 6 million mothers and babies.

We will not let up in our fight to tackle sickness, hunger and illiteracy across the developing world. And we will not break our promises on aid.

But we will also support developing countries to lift themselves from poverty – to pursue economic growth, while protecting their citizens from the impact of climate change.

The Co-operative movement knows that economic growth is the exit route out of poverty and aid dependence. Fifty years ago income rates in East Asia were equivalent to those in Africa – today, incomes in East Asia are five times higher.

We need to help developing countries to achieve fair and sustainable economic growth but in the midst of this global recession, we also need to help to protect poor people, from the worst effects of the downturn.

So we are going to double our agricultural research funding, and provide investment for infrastructure and reforms that will help African countries to trade with each other and with the rest of the world. But we will also help 50 million poor people in more than twenty countries, get through the recession.

Across the UK, fair and ethical trade has proved itself to work. It used to be about paying a little bit more for coffee and tea but now it is part of the consumer mainstream. Seven out of ten households are buying Fairtrade.

Many more major companies like Cadbury’s and Starbucks have got involved this year, benefiting farmers in Ghana and Rwanda. The Fairtrade label now certifies more than £1 billion worth of goods – helping over seven million producers and their families. And it is not just food, but now cosmetics sold in Boots carry the Fairtrade mark.

Of course the Co-operative has been the longest standing and the greatest supporter of Fairtrade of all – the first to stock Fairtrade products and the retailer that sells the widest range of Fairtrade goods.

Fairtrade used to be seen a charity, but now it’s seen as smart business sense. I want to see this success story continue, so I am getting DFID to quadruple our support for fair and ethical trading – to help give farmers in the developing world a fair deal and expand the range of products that consumers in the developed world can buy and show their support.

If the scale of the economic crisis and its impact on the developing world is clear, climate change presents if anything an even greater long term threat to the prospects of alleviating poverty in the developing world.

The co-operative movement has always been at the forefront of debates around sustainability and the environment. You have led the way both in raising consciousness and in finding practical solutions.

Last week, I saw for myself the impact of climate change in Bangladesh. In the developing world, climate change is not a future threat but a current crisis and a daily lived reality.

We have to remember that it is the world’s poorest people who are least responsible for the problem, but will bear a disproportionate share of the impacts.

We are just a few short months away from the Copenhagen conference, where the world must reach agreement on a global climate change deal which not only cuts global emissions but also protects poor people against the climate change that it is too late to stop.

The UK has taken the lead and set out a plan to secure the new and additional finance needed – over and above our aid commitments – for a global fund of 0bn a year to help developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And we have set a cap of 10% to ensure that on overseas aid is not swallowed up by climate financing – a commitment our opponents refuse to match.

While we need to tackle climate change and poverty together, we must also expose relentlessly the Tories unwillingness to match Labour’s ambitious funding proposals that could be the key that unlocks the negotiations. It’s another example of the Tories changing their brand but not their beliefs. They are happy to talk ‘green’ but they still act ‘blue’.

The global recession and the climate crisis threaten to turn back the development gains we have achieved over the last decade. They are big challenges that require bold global action.

A world where too many continue to lack not only for the basics of life, but also the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations, diminishes us all. For our international progressive movement, for the thousands of people across the UK involved in the co-operative movement, this is a profoundly moral cause. But in the 21st century, development is not merely a moral cause, it is also a common cause.

Douglas Alexander is the Secretary of State for International Development.

This article origianlly appeared on LabourList.org