General Election 2024: International development under Labour – caught between realism and idealism

Dr Chris Lyon, Teaching Fellow in Politics of Development, explores what international development policy will look like under a Labour government.

David Lammy, the Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs

If, as widely anticipated, Labour forms the next UK government, what might this mean for international development? In the Labour manifesto, the party promises to ‘modernise international development’ and pledges to ‘rebuild Britain’s reputation on international development with a new approach based on genuine respect’. They say their mission statement will be ‘to create a world free from poverty on a liveable planet’. These pledges sound ambitious and positive, but how they achieve this will hinge on the approach they take to get there. Possible clues to this approach are in David Lammy’s recent Foreign Affairs piece. The foreign secretary hopeful outlines the foreign policy approach of an incoming Labour government, branding it “progressive realism”. Lammy’s ideas are very interesting in relation to UK development aid policy – particularly, as I’ll come onto, the mention of both ‘realism’ and ‘progressive ideals’.

Last time Labour moved from opposition to government, in 1997, they created the Department for International Development. DFID went on to become highly active, influential, and respected, sometimes labelled an international development ‘superpower’. The highly controversial 2020 merger of DFID with the Foreign Office dissolved much of this credibility and power, but there is no mention of reinstating DFID in 2024 manifesto.

One criticism of that merger, which created the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, is that it risks blurring international development policy with foreign policy more generally. Many would assume that a country’s foreign aid is driven at least partly by intrinsic values, such as reducing poverty and conflict while promoting democracy and social equality – in contrast to more purely self-interested traditional foreign policy. As such, making development policy and foreign policy close bedfellows seems a risk to the former. This is where Lammy’s “progressive realism” and the legacy of DFID becomes very interesting.

DFID was central in an influential new trend in the 2000s and 2010s towards ‘politically-informed development’, encompassing agendas such as ‘thinking and working politically’, ‘doing development differently’, ‘working with the grain’, and ‘political economy analysis’. What united this trend was its opposition to an earlier way of thinking about the politics of development, namely post-Cold War ‘Good Governance’. Good Governance was criticised as somehow both naïve (idealistically ignoring political realities in developing countries) and domineering (dictating that developing countries should conjure up facsimiles of Western liberal institutions). By contrast, the new way of thinking pledged to be more realistic, less idealistic, less moralistic, and more attuned to ‘real’ politics and ‘political realities’. In other words: more politically realist.

But Lammy’s wishful, contradictory portmanteau is not surprising: it aptly illustrates how realism generates dilemmas. In international development, the more that development actors, such as DFID/FCDO-supported projects, adapt to countries’ ‘political realities’ and eschew ideals, the more they jeopardise their critical distance from the politics in question.

Dr Chris Lyon, University of Birmingham

In policy terms, this involved things like: trying to ensure development projects are ‘locally-owned’; trading accountable measurability for an adaptive, trial-and-error approach; or, even more controversially, working ‘with the grain’ of patronage politics to achieve project aims; accepting corruption as inevitable; or looking past autocratic repression when regimes appear, overall, to promote development – the emblematic example being Paul Kagame’s Rwanda.

In an upcoming journal article I argue that realism vs. idealism is, in fact, fundamental to understanding recent, current, and near-future thinking about the politics of development – a thesis that David Lammy’s launching of “progressive realism” appears to support. Lammy states: “Progressive realism advocates using realist means to pursue progressive ends”. Now, a student of political theory and international relations might tell you this is almost a contradiction in terms, like advocating ‘republican monarchism’. Lammy describes realism as “a politics based on respect for facts”, but this is not quite accurate, at least in the sense of academic theory. Realism certainly has something to do with facts, but more fundamentally what realists dislike is the staking out of ideals in a pre-political fashion, and the assumption that politics is the practice of pursuing moral commitments. If your foreign policy intends to “pursue progressive ends” around the world then you don’t have a realist foreign policy.

But Lammy’s wishful, contradictory portmanteau is not surprising: it aptly illustrates how realism generates dilemmas. In international development, the more that development actors, such as DFID/FCDO-supported projects, adapt to countries’ ‘political realities’ and eschew ideals, the more they jeopardise their critical distance from the politics in question. This weakens their ability to criticise objectionable acts of power-holders, or to push against features of the political status quo. This regularly generates moral quandaries, and risks losing focus on desirable long-term political change. But the alternative – maintaining a clear standard for making principled criticisms of aid-recipient governments, or even supporting in-country oppositional movements – seems to creep back towards the high-minded political idealism previously rejected, and might endanger development progress achieved under the more pragmatic realist approach. There is a real dilemma here, whose force DFID perfectly illustrated in 2012’s infamous episode of suspending, then reinstating, then re-suspending, then finally re-reinstating aid to Rwanda.

Politically-engaged development practice can therefore easily be caught between realism and idealism, and Labour’s “progressive realism” pitch embodies this, suggestively foreshadowing the contradictory pressures that UK development staff are going to feel: pressure to nail their ‘progressive Western ideals’ to the mast in the context of ‘Cold War 2.0’, but pressure behind the scenes to fall in line with the realist geostrategic expedience that is the preoccupation of their now-colleagues in FCDO.

However, one thing that Lammy’s article suggests Labour will do, which is seemingly reflected in their manifesto, is simply to take international development more seriously than it has been at any point since they were last in office. Moreover, while the term ‘realism’ is misleading, I think something broadly like Lammy’s position is the right one. In my view, politically-engaged development inevitably involves political ideals and goals, and it is much better to be explicit about these, opening them to critical scrutiny and aiding clarity – while avoiding returning to the overbearing character of Good Governance. And, clearly, few people would not share Lammy’s call for being ‘realistic’. So, ‘realistic progressivism’ might be a better name, perhaps with the ‘realistic’ part based in political economy analysis and the ‘progressivism’ part grounded in a theory of global justice – which might also crucially involve applying more scrutiny to aid-sending countries’ own practices and relations.