Aid

Britain doesn't have to choose between trade and aid

Post-Brexit Britain can become a great global trading nation without giving up on international aid.

Prime Minister Theresa May can place our aid programme at the centre of our global identity in a post-Brexit world, writes O'Connell [Reuters]

On March 5th, 1946, Winston Churchill gave a speech in Fulton, Missouri. It was to be remembered as his famous "Iron Curtain" speech - and in it Churchill sought to define a new global role for the UK and US in opposing Soviet Russia. Many see this speech as marking the start of the Cold War, but it was also a clear rallying call for the UK to remain engaged on the world stage, whilst looking to redefine Britain's identity after the second world war at a time of declining colonial powers. 

Fast forward 70 years and we are at a similar crossroads. We are not picking up the pieces of a world war, nor opposing the Soviet Union, but post-Brexit, the UK is facing an identity crisis and great global challenges of security, peace and economic development. At a time of extraordinary change, our nation must once again identify a place for itself in the world.

Prime Minister Theresa May has called for the UK to be a "great global trading nation" and few would disagree with that aspiration. What that means, though, is subject to intense debate. What should the nature of future trade deals be, for example? What are the implications for workers' rights, environmental standards and equitable distribution of the benefits of this trade?

One of the key questions in defining the UK's position on the world stage is the role of international aid. This is an important issue and there are real decisions to be made. For example, how do we ensure maximum efficiency and effectiveness of our aid? And how do we tackle poverty that is increasingly concentrated in fragile states, in a vicious circle with conflict and displacement?

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In the current political atmosphere, as we hurtle at full speed towards making decisions that affect the future of our country, we can be too often presented with false choices. Instead of falling into the trap of making decisions based on either/or scenarios, let's identify the false choices so we are able to get on with making the real ones.

The first false choice is the choice between trade and aid. On one hand, there are those who argue that aid impedes development and that only the private sector can defeat poverty. On the other side, there are those who are instinctively wary of private sector involvement in aid and development.

The real choice is whether we have the courage to unite behind a vision of the UK as an active and compassionate player on the world stage.

It is not necessary to choose between business and development. Business benefits from a stable international economic and political environment that aid helps deliver (pdf). Meanwhile, we do not have to reject the private sector in order to achieve the aims of global development - in fact, quite the opposite.

This false dichotomy between trade and aid is reflected in other false choices - between compassion and rationality, and between morality and reality. Leaders in business are not heartless, and aid proponents do not live in a dreamland. There are examples of bad practices on both sides, but there is no fundamental conflict. It is possible to be clear-eyed, moral, rational and compassionate all at the same time.

Which brings us to the final false choice - between prioritising the UK's interests and maintaining a well-funded, effective aid strategy. While there are calls to use the aid budget explicitly to advance UK commercial interests, this is not necessary - we will benefit anyway. Of course, not all aid is successful and, as I've previously written, we in the aid sector need to do better at communicating the challenges and risks. But overall the effects of aid are unquestionably positive, both for economic development generally and UK interests in particular. Aid helps to deliver a more stable, peaceful and prosperous world for us all. It is possible to have a pro-UK, pro-business vision alongside a smart and effective aid strategy - and to do so both morally and rationally, with an eye for the UK's place in the world.

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Churchill said in 1946: "… do not suppose that … half a century from now, you will not see 70 or 80 millions of Britons spread about the world and united in defence of our traditions, our way of life, and of the world causes which you and we espouse." Seventy years on and UK society is, like other countries, worryingly polarised. But far from adding to this polarisation, aid has the potential to unite us.

UK aid is recognised as among the best in the world. It helps define our global role and we should be proud of it. With all the major parties including the 0.7 percent commitment in their manifestos, Theresa May now has a singular opportunity. The prime minister can choose to work across the political spectrum, which she's recently stated is a priority, and place our aid programme at the centre of our global identity in a post-Brexit world. As we forge that identity we must reject the false choices. The real choice is whether we have the courage to unite behind a vision of the UK as an active and compassionate player on the world stage.

Simon O'Connell is the executive director of Mercy Corps Europe and senior vice president for Global Partnerships. An experienced development professional with two decades working in numerous countries in Africa, Simon is passionate about promoting equitable opportunity.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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