In the world of UK politics, conference season looks a lot different this year. The usual buzz of people mingling in the exhibition hall, reuniting with friends, and queuing to hear keynote speakers, is difficult to imagine.
Like much of our lives, party conferences have moved into a virtual space. Face-to-face conversations with members of Parliament will be replaced by video calls, and delegates can ‘visit’ exhibitions and tune into policy discussions from the comfort of their own homes.
This year, we can expect conferences to be dominated by both the usual party political issues and also the impact of COVID-19 on communities here in the UK.
But as politicians of all stripes gather this autumn, we would urge them to consider the impact of global events on the poorest and vulnerable in the world. And, more importantly, perhaps, consider the impact of their own policies and decisions on those same vulnerable communities.
We must ensure we leave no one behind.
Earlier this month we saw the former Department for International Development (DFID) merge with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – a move which created the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and brought foreign policy, aid and development into the same government department for the first time since 1997.
Regardless of government structures, the impact of British aid spending – in alleviating poverty, creating the conditions for security and stability, and engendering strong bilateral relationships for the UK with countries across the globe – cannot be underestimated.
MAG’s priority is to save lives and build futures, enabling people to live without fear of landmines and unexploded ordnance. We believe there is a moral obligation for the UK to maintain its current overseas aid commitments. But we also recognise that our humanitarian work delivers wider benefits which bring political and economic value to Britain.
The new FCDO will play a crucial role in ensuring aid delivers the best possible benefits to the communities we seek to help and to Britain as well. The right combination of aid and diplomacy is one the UK can use to tackle a whole range of global problems, from climate change to poverty and conflict.
Because the truth is that aid, when targeted well and applied strategically, not only reduces poverty and human suffering. It also helps create the conditions for economic growth and lays the basis for more security and stability in otherwise fragile communities.
In an important diplomatic step, later this year the UK will assume the presidency of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. This crucial humanitarian treaty brings together more than 100 countries who have committed to banning some of the most indiscriminate weapons ever deployed.
MAG sees the vital need for this international commitment through our work in two of the countries most affected by cluster munition contamination.
In Lebanon, conflict in 2006 left the country littered with more than 1.5 million unexploded cluster bombs. It is an explosive legacy that remains an ever-present danger and one of the many barriers to socio-economic development in a country experiencing multiple crises, including the recent and tragic Beirut explosion.
In Laos, the most bombed country on earth, we have witnessed first-hand the effect of diplomatic effort enabling sustained development impact. In 2008 Laos was the first country to adopt the Convention on Cluster Munitions. This step focused the world’s attention on a forgotten country which 40 years on was still saddled with the remnants of the Vietnam War.
Since 2014, through the DFID Global Mine Action Programme (GMAP) the UK has invested £10.4m in Laos, resulting in almost 22 million square metres of land being cleared and hundreds of life-saving risk education workshops to inform local communities of the dangers of unexploded ordnance.
The current three-year UK GMAP programme, which commenced in July 2018, represents a mere 0.57 per cent of the estimated £12 billion annual UK foreign aid budget and yet delivers tangible and unequivocal results.
Since 2014, GMAP support to MAG and our partners ensured more than a million people received mine risk education and it enabled 297 million square metres of dangerous land to be safely returned to communities – an area larger than 41,000 football pitches. This positive impact of UK aid on people on the ground frees communities and whole countries to pave the way for greater economic development. British taxpayers can rightly be proud of these results and of DFID’s legacy as a whole.
The merger of DFID and the FCO must lead to stronger and better coordinated UK responses to global problems. A successful merger, that keeps the very poorest at the heart of the UK’s development agenda, depends on the best of DFID being brought to bear in the new department. DFID has, for two decades, been at the forefront of humanitarian and development thinking and practice. This experience, these principles and commitment to best practice must be retained.
Above all, however, this merger can only be successful if it is founded on a continued commitment – one enshrined in law – to the 0.7 per cent aid target. Losing that commitment will, ultimately, not just damage the lives of millions of the world’s poorest but will also be an act of self-harm to the UK’s economic, diplomatic and, most crucially, humanitarian ambitions overseas.