Lisa Nandy on UK’s Future Development Policy Under Labour

February 29, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

So, apologies for the anglo-centrism and all that, but the recent series of crystal ball blogs on the future of UK Aid under (as seems likely) an incoming Labour Government has been getting lots of good comments. Here’s Andy Sumner parts one and two, and Tom Wingfield’s response. This week, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Minister for International Development, Lisa Nandy (right), spoke at the ODI think tank (her first major speech since she first took on the role).  

Overall impression? She is very relatable, sensible, smart, listens to questions and then (shock!) largely tries to answer them. The questions were good too, reviving my faith in the UK dev cluster of academics, thinktanks and NGOs, which has taken quite a battering since the destruction of DFID. More on that later.

Some headlines and quotes from her initial presentation:

Any new government will have to mend the damage to its reputation and antagonism between EU and the South over human rights, Gaza and perceived double standards. She’s been to the Middle East a few times, and is a former Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, and has been struck by the anger over European inaction on Gaza. That will have to involve the whole of government, not just the aid bit. For that you need a simple overall narrative – aka a ‘clear direction of travel’.

‘This is not 1997’. Her slogan for a future Labour government is ‘a world free from poverty on a liveable planet’, with a focus on poverty, climate and debt.

Big emphasis on the how, not just the what – ‘based on one word – respect’. Respect for partners, for the voices of those on the ground, including an ‘asset-based approach’ that focusses on people’s strengths, not what, in outsiders’ views, is missing. ‘People know better than we do.’

The immediate task is spending development money on development, not letting it be raided by other departments for things like refugee and asylum-seeker costs in the UK.

Words matter. The abolition of DFID was ‘not a merger, just mindless vandalism’. She was very critical of NGO ‘poverty porn’ fundraising and hates the term ‘development superpower’.

‘The thing people most miss from the UK is not money, but thought leadership. Interesting. Prior to the mindless vandalism, I argued that there was a strong cluster of organizations doing just that in the UK, between universities, thinktanks and NGOs and their partners around the world. We need a strategy for reviving that, which is not just about lobbying on our specific agenda points, but thinking more broadly about how to recreate that network solidity in pursuit of a genuinely progressive agenda.

Which brings me to my question to her, which was about institution building. Most of the discussion was understandably on policies and actions, but they can be just as easily overturned when Labour lose power (as they will, eventually). What about creating institutions that could outlive a future Labour government? Thinking back to the 1997 Labour landslide, I identified the creation of DFID, the leading role in agreeing the Millennium Development Goals and subsequently, the legislation on 0.7% (not under Labour) as 3 examples of institutional reforms that made progress ‘sticky’ and harder to reverse.

On the future institutional shape of aid under Labour, her response was a guarded ‘watch this space’. But more interestingly, she contrasted those institutional reforms that were largely overturned after Labour lost power in 2010, like the Sure Start early years childcare network, to stickier innovations like the introduction of the minimum wage and civil partnerships, which became part of the fabric of UK society. Her argument was that the difference was ‘winning the argument with the public’ on the latter, although on reflection, I wondered if it was also that Sure Start entailed costs to the Treasury, unlike the others.

As for what was missing from the speech (always the hardest part to identify), I was struck that she barely mentioned inequality, except in relation to women and girls. We were back to ending world poverty, a la 1997, but with added climate change. No mention of wealth taxes or other redistributive ideas. And although she had lots of warm words about civil society organizations on the ground, and has clearly met and been inspired by a number of these, she was much more cautious about INGOs, who were largely referenced in relation to their use of stereotyped fundraising imagery. INGOs clearly have some bridges to (re)build there.

I’d be very interested in other people’s reflections on the event – please chip in.

And here’s the full video and transcript, c/o ODI.

February 29, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. The core principles expressed by Lisa Nandy appear to be correct and should form the basis of much improved Foreign Aid strategy. INGOs in my view have more to do than merely build bridges. As I have argued too many of them regard themselves as permanent players, often reinventing their mission – to fit in with donor-funding outlines – rather than a clear sense of where and how they can contribute best in “developing” countries, sectors and communities. Too often their connection with local authorities, NGOs, and communities is an output not an integral element from the outset. In this sense I must stress that DfID was far better than USAID that still relies on its own agencies to lead “local” projects – with their fly-in, buy-in outfits. Sometimes INGOs have no exit plans. Now having criticised INGOs, I have to say not all are at fault and not all at the time. Some are exemplary as we have had with successful (and sustainable) “localisation” of activities. However it is not INGOs most at fault in Foreign Aid but the big agencies such as the World Bank, UN agencies, and even the well-known organisations like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. They are very expensive operators always first to receive funding from the major donors and last to be hit when there are cuts. They also escape accountability despite as we have experienced in Cambodia their projects failing and under-achieving. They place continuity and harmony with host governments over results with “beneficiaries” and value for the taxpayers’ money entrusted to them.

  2. INGOs became the monsters which aid agencies created (probably particularly DFID and USAID) by pushing more and more funding in their direction. Big money means big fiduciary risk so most INGO had to create bigger finance/accountancy/legal departments with due (and well paid) personnel … thereby moving further and further away from their missions and values. After conducting policy research on INGOs in Ethiopia, I’d say that they and consulting companies look rather similar these days except the latter don’t take a moral high ground and run those awful ads. UN bodies are merely an incompetent melange of delightful multi-national, multi-linguists, but it must be hoped that no UK government would seriously contemplate putting more funds their way.

    Labour policy makers should not get too carried away with terms not properly thought through. “Respect for partners and for the voices on the ground” sounds suitably PC but what does it mean? Lots of Africans are sick of aid fuelling corruption, but are their voices also likely to be heard? Most DFID staff I met never left their offices in recent years or only ventured as far as Ministries of Finance, unlike in the 1990s when they actually travelled around countries to listen to those “voices on the ground”. Aid is political and aid funds are fungible, and yet DFID carried on pouring aid into countries like Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia even after significant, well researched exposes revealed appalling abuses by those countries’ political elites. Is respect merely going to become the latest buzz word after participation and partnership have fallen by the wayside?

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