My priorities as Labour’s new Shadow International Development Secretary

Preet Gill
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

It is a privilege to have been appointed to the role of Shadow International Development Secretary and to follow in the footsteps of all those who have led on our party’s international development work since Labour created the Minister for Overseas Development in 1964 and then the Department for International Development (DfID) in 1997.

The Labour Party has a proud history of standing up for the most marginalised and vulnerable, both at home and abroad, and this focus will continue to guide our work in all that we do.

Sadly, we have seen a weakening of DfID under the Conservatives. We have seen money intended to help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable being channelled to other government departments. We will be unapologetic in our defence of a strong, independent DfID that can be a global leader in addressing poverty and inequality.

In 2018, as a shadow minister in Labour’s international development team, I was lucky enough to visit Uganda and see first-hand the extraordinary impact UK aid can have on people’s lives. There, I met a boy who had seen his father killed and whose mother was missing. He, as the eldest at just 12 years old, took on the caring responsibilities of his siblings. They fled conflict in South Sudan to a child-friendly Ugandan refugee camp providing over 1,500 children with psychosocial, emotional welfare and wellbeing support and, importantly, the chance at a better future.

This project would not have been possible without assistance and aid from the UK, and shows that when development is done properly, it can reach communities that would otherwise be left behind.

Our immediate priority is of course the coronavirus crisis, but this pandemic has revealed and exacerbated inequalities related to the impact of the climate crisis, and to access to good quality healthcare, safe living conditions, and nutritious food. Where these inequalities exist, we know it will be the poorest, most marginalised and vulnerable who suffer most acutely.

In fragile states, and those with weak health systems, there is a greater risk of people dying from hunger than Covid-19. Add to that the potential for a global economic recession and the burning need to tackle the climate emergency, and the ramifications of this pandemic stretch far beyond the direct impact of this virus. That’s why we cannot afford to take our eyes off existing priorities during the pandemic response.

Current events have reminded us that health emergencies do not respect borders. We are rightly proud of our NHS and the pandemic has reconfirmed its importance in keeping us all safe and healthy. Addressing health inequalities around the world through universal healthcare must form part of the world we want to build.

Two-thirds of the Yemeni population cannot access healthcare; in South Sudan, with a population of 11.7 million, there are only 24 ICU beds and just four ventilators. Meanwhile, in northeast Syria, where around five million people are currently living, there are only 28 ICU beds and 11 ventilators.

We should be doing everything we can to support countries to focus attention and resources on health systems, hygiene, water and sanitation. We know, in the absence of a vaccine or treatments, the importance of hand-washing in stemming the spread of the coronavirus given three billion people around the world don’t have access to basic hand-washing facilities. If support is lacking, many more health systems in the global south are at risk of becoming overwhelmed when the pandemic hits.

That’s why we’ve called for debt cancellation for countries in the global south, equitable access to Covid-19 related medical tools and urged for the UK to play a greater role in securing a global ceasefire at the UN Security Council.

Gender equality too, will be a priority for my team. With women making up more than 70% of the global health workforce, this pandemic risks disproportionately affecting women and girls. That’s why we’ve called for gender analysis to play a central role in the UK’s international response to Covid-19. For the UK to be a genuine world leader on gender equality now and in the future, we need to focus on addressing the fundamental, structural and systemic causes of gender inequality. This starts by acknowledging that current structures exclude, infringe and damage a wide range of people.

Finally, we want our solidarity with one another in the UK to stretch outward and beyond, and make room for voices that aren’t always heard. We have a distinct opportunity to use our position of power to make room for voices to be heard that are otherwise excluded. The UK must accept the responsibility but can only be successful if we work with a wide variety of actors to build on and develop our solidarity around the globe, including with trade unions, co-operatives, faith groups, charities, academics, political parties, movements, businesses and individual activists.

One of my first acts in the role was to put out a call for evidence to these actors to better understand the impact Covid-19 was having in the global south. The response was fantastic, and made clear that there is a wide and diverse coalition of support for our work who are strong believers in the importance of development around the world.

This pandemic has been a sad reminder, however, that global solidarity is not guaranteed and that it is something we must fight for every day. In 2015, the world agreed to a set of universally applicable Global Goals with a deadline of 2030. We will not overcome the challenges we face, from the current pandemic to the climate crisis, without global cooperation. Far from retreating, we – as proud internationalists – must reaffirm our commitment to people in every corner of the world and play a leading role as part of a broad, progressive global community.

This piece is part of a series by members of the new shadow cabinet.

Join us for our upcoming online event ‘LabourList in conversation with Preet Kaur Gill’ on Thursday, June 18th, at 6pm.

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