In 1792, pioneering British feminist and social justice activist Mary Wollstonecroft wrote in The Rights of Women: “It is justice, not charity that is wanting in the world.”
Now, 226 years later, Labour has anchored that fundamental truth in its vision for international development: A World for the Many, Not the Few.
Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Kate Osamor, a black feminist and social justice activist, has committed Labour to putting social justice at the heart of its international agenda. This involves listening to the voices of those facing the greatest injustices: women in the global South.
For too long, politicians and, shamefully, many in the development sector have ignored the true driver of global poverty: neoliberal capitalism, a failed economic system whose rules are stacked in favour of corporate elites.
They have stayed silent on the culpability of Britain in promoting unfair trade rules, creating new debt burdens, forced privatisations and entrenching oppressive neocolonial power dynamics around the world.
At best, they have promoted the myth that charitable giving or development aid by itself could address the political and economic systems that cause global poverty. At worst, they have peddled “poverty porn” — racialised and gendered images of “helpless” people in the global South requiring white saviours.
The World for the Many, Not the Few policy is a radical vision for how Britain should approach international development. It pinpoints the greatest challenges to just and sustainable development: enduring poverty and soaring inequality; public services under siege; a climate crisis threatening lives and livelihoods and forcing mass migration; and everywhere, women bearing the brunt of the burden.
These challenges are not new. British anti-poverty group War on Want has been campaigning on these issues for decades. In 1952, it launched with a leaflet stating: “Transcending all our immediate problems, this gap between the rich and the poor of the earth is the supreme challenge of the next 50 years”. It has been one of the few groups willing to tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality around the world: colonialism, imperialism and later, neoliberalism.
Now, more than 60 years later, the IMF has been forced to admit the significance of global inequality and we are in with a chance of a British government that understands this reality — and is prepared to act.
What is new and potentially groundbreaking is the vision and ambition of Labour’s new policy. Among its most important proposals are making inequality reduction a binding commitment; democratising global financial institutions dominated by the wealthiest states; tackling climate change by promoting energy democracy; reversing the privatisation of aid spending and public services; and finally putting feminist principles at the heart of development strategy.
Beneath all this lies a commitment to social justice that promises to take international development away from the charitable model and towards one that could actually transform the rules of a global system rigged to benefit the rich.
This would have some profound implications. For decades, oversees aid spending has been used to promote neoliberalism in and control over the global South.
Once-powerful movements across the global South had liberated themselves from direct military and colonial control, economic control through a neocolonial development model has preserved the dynamic of domination by the global North. Since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s, this system has held back human rights and living standards in the former colonies while preserving the rights of a global elite to exploit land, labour and resources in poorer countries.
Labour’s exciting step forwards hasn’t come from nowhere. The policy is so ambitious only because it has emerged from dialogue. This was not just with a panel of experts, but with decades of experience of social movements such as La Via Campesina and other grassroots groups on the front lines of social justice struggle.social movement.
By centring voices from the global South and understanding the connections between gender, race, class and other forms of discrimination that conspire to marginalise and oppress, it ensured that those with roots in these global movements could feed their thinking into the policy.
The echoes of radical voices can be heard throughout the proposals, not least in the assertion that any genuine commitment towards eradicating poverty and contributing to a more equal and peaceful world will need all government departments to join the effort. It is no good having the Department for International Development advocating for human rights while the Foreign Office fuels a global arms trade and the Home Office calls for bigger walls around Fortress Europe.
That is why the policy paper calls for coherence across government and strategic initiatives on trade, taxation and international debt as well as the arms trade.
This ambitious new policy faces a multitude of formidable obstacles: a battle for hearts and minds in the face of rising poverty at home against a divisive right-wing media; politicians who dream of constituting a new Empire 2.0; a global development model built along neocolonial and neoliberal lines of infinite growth on a finite planet; and a ferocious backlash against feminist principles, particularly when articulated by women of colour.
We are right to question what might happen when the idealism of A World For The Many collides with the interests of the City of London and British multinationals with everything to lose.
But for the first time in a long time, we have a development secretary waiting in the wings with real answers to questions on international development that many in the global South had long given up bothering to ask us.
Osamor believes Britain can be more than a used-car salesperson loaning out British money to mop up a fraction of the damage done by British bombs. She should be applauded for asserting that women are not just the hardest hit by poverty, but also the most powerful agents of change.
But, to turn those policy proposals into more than just words requires a genuine movement of people in Britain willing to promote a new internationalism; a movement that refuses to only locate its politics domestically and turn a blind eye to the global South being sacrificed to ensure the wellbeing of the global North.
Such a movement must be dedicated to realising the right of all people to a dignified life and accountable to those on the frontline of struggle; a genuinely intersectional movement for global justice.
[Abridged from Red Pepper.]