The Brandt Commission Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:37 pm on 18th April 1983.

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Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:37 pm, 18th April 1983

I do not want to concentrate on the broad tableau painted by Brandt, but, like the thoughtful and concerned speech of the hon. Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester), on national responsibility. In a sense, we have a self-selecting congregation here tonight. It is interesting to record that, apart from the jarring note struck by the hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend), there has been a consensus that we must do more. The 0·4 per cent. of our GNP that is devoted to aid is nothing like the target of 0·7 per cent. Even that target is small compared with the 3 per cent. of GNP that my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) put forward in the 1950s as a target for aid.

We are not doing enough to fulfil our moral responsibility, as the hon. Member for Beeston emphasised, to the brotherhood of man and for the poorest people in the poorest countries. We have an inescapable moral responsibility to help those people in those countries who are so much poorer than we are. We are not doing enough to solve the problem that the Brandt report brings out practically and clearly. They come out even more vividly on the ground. The realities of aid, poverty and deprivation, about which we are talking, were brought home to the Commonwealth parliamentary delegation which had the privilege of visiting Tanzania and Uganda earlier this year.

I read the statistics about how, for the tenth year, the countries south of the Sahara had declining food production and an expanding population. In Tanzania and Uganda we saw the reality of that and the declining receipts for their primary produce, which were barely adequate to cover the oil and food that they were having to import to support the growing population. One saw an economy in Tanzania that was slowly grinding to a halt because of the shortage of foreign exchange.

The General Tyre East Africa factory had not worked since 16 October—we were there at the end of January —because there was not the overseas exchange to pay for the rubber or other contents of the tyres. We saw a foundry which was about to close down because it had only three days supply of coke. We saw cotton crops that had not been collected because there was not the petrol and the vehicles had broken down that should have collected them, to send them to the export market, to pay for the foreign exchange, to keep the economy going.

I could have wished that this country was doing more in that situation of increasing poverty and the stresses and strains of war in Uganda and Tanzania. We have slipped to fifth place on the aid table in an area where we have a long-standing connection and an imperial responsibility.

We saw German, not British doctors, in Uganda. We saw Swedish firms developing their industries in a sister programme of providing technology and training. We did not see the same being done by British firms. We saw a contribution from Britain that concentrated far too strongly on military training and the provision of weapons.

We also saw how important it is that the aid be presented in a direct, practical and immediate form, which is most necessary. The countries are short not of spectacular projects but of hoes, spades, tractors and other equipment, and even of the wherewithal to inoculate the children. Yet it costs only £2·30 for the six basic inoculations. There should be provision for training in skills. What we are doing is inadequate in the light of the problem. It is also inadequate in the light of the needs of our own economy. We are one world. We have foolishly lost sight of that in the way in which the economy has been run over the past few years. We have concentrated on our own problems, and we have tackled them in a way that has directly harmed the developing world that we should be helping.

There is a banking crisis. We cannot complain at the existence of that crisis and the massive growth of bank lending in the 1970s, because the recycling of the oil money in particular tided us over difficulties that should have been overwhelming and stepped in where international institutions had failed. Recycling was keeping the economies of the developing world and the newly-industrialised countries going at a higher level than would otherwise have been the case and so helped to keep our economy going at a higher level than would otherwise have been the case. The report of the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service about international lending by the banks states: Foreign borrowing was an important source of the saving that permitted the developing countries to sustain investment and growth despite adverse external circumstance. Investment rates actually rose in most developing countries, while growth fell off far less than in the industrial countries. In other words, developing countries were investing the money wisely in the main and were helping to keep us going at a higher level of activity that would otherwise have been the case. They were then hit by a crisis not of their own making — the oil shock, which put up oil prices by 1,000 per cent., through the seventies than by high interest rates and the world depression. We have a responsibility for the last two factors. The piggy bank Poujadism that has dominated economic policy in this country has led directly to the increase in interest rates, which has been crippling the economies of developing countries, and the depression of demand for their primary produce, which those countries live by exporting and where the margin for cutting back is so much less than ours.

The result was that the advanced industrial economies, which should be the engine that drives the world economy and stimulates growth, themselves stopped and started slipping back, with disastrous consequences for the developing countries. It can be judged how disastrous the consequences are for those countries when we remember that next year 35 million people will be out of work in the OECD countries themselves, which are supposed to be the driving engine of the world economy.

Mercifully, the United States, with a greater sense of responsibility to the developing world, has reversed those monetarist policies. The reversal was, of course, stimulated by the banking crisis and the threat to United States trade, but it is interesting to note that the United States has reversed the policies while we have persevered with them and that now, when we should theoretically be enjoying the fruit of the policies, we sit becalmed and have to wait for the Americans to pull us out.

We helped to inflict a depression on the world by putting inflation at the forefront of our priorities when we should have been fighting the depression much earlier and more massively by expanding the world economy. That would have boosted not only our economy but the economies of the developing countries. We then compounded that depression by using the decline of our economy as an excuse to cut the aid programme. It is true that there has been an increase to £1 billion in 1983–84 —an increase of 10 per cent. That is only 4 per cent. in real terms, and it includes the extensive provision for the Falklands. It goes no way towards compensating for the 19 per cent. cut in the aid programme between 1978–79 and 1982–83, or for the planned decline by 2 per cent. for each of the following two years.

That is one of the cuts that have been made by the Government on all fronts. Politically, there is no excuse for the cuts in development education, which is to be phased out from next year—we shall be the only OECD country without it — or for the massive cuts in the scientific units of the ODA. They have taken a disproportionate share of the burden of cuts and yet have a disproportionately huge contribution to make in terms of development and advice, which are the very field that we should be concentrating on and building up.

There is a further failure in connection with our membership of the EC. The EC has provided aid, but that aid has not been adequate to compensate for the diversion of trade which it has also produced or the agricultural protectionism that it has forced upon us. However, I am more concerned about our contribution to forming the attitudes—the obscure and, for the developing countries, self-defeating attitudes—of the international institutions. I refer particularly to the IMF, in which we play such a major part.

The IMF has been strengthened by the increase in special drawing rights, but it is still not adequate to deal with a crisis on the present scale. The real problem is not only the inadequacy of the IMF's resources but the fact that it is dominated by the advanced industrial countries. It is seen in the developing world as the handmaiden of the advanced industrial countries, putting their demands and furthering their interests at the expense of the developing world. Because the IMF has a common pattern of action and imposes uniform conditions, economic difficulties in a developing country automatically mean political difficulties. The IMF comes in with its programme of devaluing, cutting spending, and pushing up prices to stimulate production. That policy is not necessarily best for the economic health of the country. It places the burden of sacrifice on the poor and threatens the stability of regimes. It is small wonder that Tanzania has resisted for so long the demands of the IMF, when what should be a two-way educational programme becomes a simple series of demands by the IMF on a "Take it or leave it" basis.

I have looked at this from the point of view of our national contribution to world expansion, which has been nil, and to international institutions, which has been counterproductive. It is essentially a moral question. We are cutting aid when we should be boosting it and counselling deflation on the world scene when we should be counselling expansion and reconstruction, due to the Government's obsession with piggy-bank Poujardism.

Mercifully, however, the Government have had one setback to the attitudes that have condtioned them in the past four years. When they came to office, calling for cuts, referring to aid as hand-outs and generally giving an unfavourable impression of aid to developing countries, they thought that that attitude would be popular. They thought that they could make cuts and get away with it, but they were clearly mistaken, because public opinion clearly supported aid. The Central Office of Information survey in 1977 made that clear, as did the reaction to the Government's policy. Through development groups and through the Churches, a growing awareness has developed that we are one world. Thus, the Government's cuts, their surly reaction to Brandt and their petty behaviour at the Cancun summit provoked not the expected cries of "Right on, well done" but shock and distaste, and the public dissociated themselves from it.

That reaction has not fundamentally changed the Government, who are still as unhelpful as ever in matters of aid, but it has certainly modified their public stance. They are now more apologetic about it. This is the area in which public opinion has produced the greatest change in the Government's stated attitudes if not in their actual policy. I hope that that pressure will continue. It is important that the informed opinion that is building up keeps up that pressure on the Government. I am glad to see in Christian Aid News for April to June that it counsels making development an election issue—just in time, to judge from what one reads in the newspapers — so pressure is building up.

The main achievement of the Brandt report has been to provide a focus and a programme for that kind of informed opinion and to mobilise the concern that exists, because there is a growing feeling in this country and overseas that we are one world and we have a moral responsibility to our brothers who are so much worse off than we are.