Ivan Lewis used his speaking slot this morning to launch a series of attacks on the attitude of many Conservatives towards international development spending. ‘Conference,’ he said. ‘It turns my stomach when I hear multi-millionaire Lord Ashcroft demanding that support for the world’s poorest should be slashed. The nasty party is back. It’s the same old Tories.’
These are the sorts of attacks that you can imagine Labour delegates going wild for. But it was difficult to really trust that Lewis actually believed what he was saying to the hall. His speech was muted, workmanlike, and the applause dutiful. He did accept that ‘we won’t be able to reverse the government’s decision to cut the projected aid budget by £1.7 billion’. But he neither defended the status quo not set out a Labour vision for international development.
He also chose to attack a straw man of a Conservative who opposes development spending full stop, rather than one concerned with transparency. There are doubtless Conservatives who believe that the government shouldn’t be spending money on development overseas when the economy is in a mess, but that is not the line of the Coalition government. Andrew Mitchell repeatedly made the argument for overseas aid spending to prevent problems which could require military spending later. The problem that his successor Justine Greening is concerned about is that the International Development department is spending money left right and centre to meet its targets, regardless of whether that spending is having the desired effect.
But Lewis’ only concession to this problem – which aid campaigners are as aware of and concerned about as anyone else – was to say this:
‘Conference, as staunch defenders of development we must also be reformers. Like any Government Department DfID is not immune from waste or poor decisions. Also, the more we focus our resources in conflict-ridden and fragile states the greater the risks we are taking. We should be honest about that. My value for money test will be what difference is our spending making to the poorest and whether it is contributing to an end to aid dependency long-term.
‘And the development community, including our world leading NGOs, should be as passionate about how we spend the hard earned money of donors and taxpayers as they have been in campaigning for 0.7. Even the most radical development agenda in the world will be seriously undermined by inadequate progress in the fight against corruption. To coin a phrase, it’s time to get tough on corruption and the causes of corruption.I am determined that from day one of the next Labour Government we will have an effective new anti-corruption plan for the UK and a strategy for building a new anti-corruption coalition around the world.’