No-one wins in the race to the bottom: five reasons to be cheerful this Party Conference season

Over the last three weeks, all visitors to the UK might well be forgiven for thinking that the titan of British business is marigold manufacturing.

Whether it be David Cameron rolling up his sleeves to mop up Labour’s mess or Ed Miliband preparing his hard hat for some serious Britain (re)building, the message from this party conference season has been clear: add a bottle of one nation disinfectant to your bag of electioneering props party people, because it’s time to clean up the country.

It’s back to basics, belt and braces. Land of hope and Tory. Making work pay. Paying people to work. Cleaning up politics? We’re through the looking glass now. It’s time for a reality check, for rigour and strategy. We’re all in this together, after all.

With more of the pervasive political rot exposed in recent weeks by the oddly Shakespearean Campbell/McBride doubleact, the unions up in arms, Nigel Farage tinkering away at the fringes (at times, literally) and the various wings of the Lib Dems locking their philosophical horns on everything from plastic bags through to pornography, never has the average politician’s share price been so low.

This is perfectly normal. With a year and a half to go until the next General Election, this year’s conference season followed a standard holding pattern, with the party leaders lobbing a few grenades across the bows before all out warfare takes hold next year. It’s time to air the dirty laundry, both inside and out of the various party HQs and make sure that everyone knows that the other team aren’t worth trusting with the petty cash tin at a coffee morning, let alone the UK economy.

But is Britain really as broken as our politicians suggest? I’d argue not. Ever the optimist, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate some of the political breakthroughs we’ve seen this year.

  1. The IF campaign – over 50,000 people turned out in London and Belfast, hundreds of MPs of all parties were lobbied by their constituents, with 70 attending the launch and even more taking action by writing to ministers, asking parliamentary questions or attending local events run by supporters.
  2. The G8 – thanks to IF campaigners, both civil society and parliamentarian, land grabs and tax and transparency made it onto the international agenda in spectacular style. The UK Government has also kept its promise to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid – something development organisations have been campaigning for since the 1970s.
  3. The EU Accounting and Transparency Directives. Sound dull? These magic pieces of legislation will ensure that companies publish what they pay for developing countries’ precious natural resources, a serious step towards transforming a system rent with conflict and corruption. MEPs of all UK parties, bar UKIP, cooperated on this crucial legislation and can be proud of the role they have playing in unearthing the truth on corruption.
  4. Rape as a weapon of war will never be accepted. Last week at the United Nations, 120 countries promised for the first time to join British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in his campaign to stamp out impunity for rape and sexual violence in conflict situations. In his party conference speech, Hague explained that his aim is also to change global attitudes and work towards full economic, social and political rights for women, no matter where they live.
  5. Action for those affected by the Syrian conflict. The debates in the British parliament were a tortured, Westminster-ified affair, but since then our politicians have worked to provide an extra £87 million of aid to the UN World Food Programme, on top of the extra £100 million of aid pledged by Nick Clegg at the UN General Assembly last week, taking British aid to Syria up to £500 million, our biggest ever relief effort. And then yesterday, the UN Security Council agreed on a statement urging the Syrian authorities to grant access to the country for humanitarian agencies so that they might finally get help to those who need it the most. There’s still far more to do, but a lot that the British people can be proud of.

With two months left to go, these are just five of the many reasons we can be proud of 2013. Can Britain do better than this? Undoubtedly. But should we be buying into the headlines which tell us that our society is in pieces that it would take all of the King’s (read Queen’s) horses and men to fix? I would still argue not. Instead, let’s look at the achievements of 2013 and build upon them in the year ahead, instead of swallowing whole the daily headlines of recrimination and despair. After all, as Ed Miliband pointed out during his conference speech, no-one wins in the race to the bottom. 

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The Land of Blue Sky

I’m standing in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia, and I’m crying. We’ve been travelling now for about five and a half weeks, through 26 countries and it’s over. We’ve dodged corrupt police in Bulgaria, heard Turkmenistan state officials tapping into our calls home; and survived drunk, angry policemen demanding a bribe (it’s a common occurrence in Uzbekistan). But now it’s over and our 1.0 litre Corsa has finally given up the ghost.

As our dreams of winning the rally crumble like the sand beneath our feet, a group of locals drive past and offer us a tow back to their community, where Matt (my co-conspirator) and I can call for a mechanic. We say goodbye to our other teammates and head back through the mountains. An hour or so later we arrive at a collection of yurts and are welcomed into the house of our rescuers. They feed us “buuz”, a traditional meal of dumplings filled with meat which are cooked in steam, give us a space to rest, and once their mechanic has come to confirm our worst fears, they arrange onward travel.

Mongolia is a beautiful empty place – that’s why it’s called The Land of Blue Sky. Yet most of its people face a hard daily struggle to survive with enough food. Our hosts didn’t have much, but the little food and warmth they did, they were more than happy to share with us as their guests. By sharing a meal together, we shared friendships, joy and peace.

Craig philbrick

Photo with our host’s children.

Since coming to work at Tearfund, I’ve realised that this problem is sadly not exclusive to Mongolia, it is a global problem. In fact, everyday 1 in 8 people go hungry worldwide. But it shouldn’t have to be this way. Did you know that there is enough food in the world for everyone? Hunger is not an inevitability, it is an injustice that we can fight. We can do something.

We are called to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our strength and all our mind – and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Luke 10:27).  Love is a verb, a doing word, therefore we must act as we honour God by loving the hungry. I want to do for other people what a family in Mongolia did for me.

And that’s why Tearfund are joining the ENOUGH FOOD FOR EVERYONE IF campaign. Together we will focus on some of the root causes of hunger, recognising that aid is only one vital first step in tackling global poverty, and that we must go beyond this to address the deeper causes of poverty and hunger, like climate change and tax dodging in developing countries. Together, we can end the daily reality of hunger for countless people and make the world a fairer, better place that we share together.

The time to act is now. If you want to be part of the campaign, sign up using the link below. Thank you.

http://www.tearfund.org/IF

Can greater transparency in government budgets help solve the global hunger crisis?

Today the 2012 Open Budget Survey was released; at the same time as the iF campaign to end world hunger is being launched. It may seem like these two have little connection, but read on…

The Open Budget Survey is an independent global measure of budget transparency and accountability around the world.

Open Budget Index Country rankings 2012

This year’s findings don’t make particularly happy reading. According to the authors, the International Budget Partnership, “the 2012 Survey reveals that the national budgets of 77 of the 100 countries assessed fail to meet basic standards of budget transparency.” These countries represent half of the world’s population and mean that fewer than half the world’s citizens have access to key documents and information about budget proposals or government spending – they cannot see where the money has come from or where the money is being spent. This lack of transparency gives greater opportunities for corruption and misuse of funds.

The Survey also finds that there governments are guilty of a “widespread failure” to provide sufficient opportunities for citizens and civil society to engage in budget processes.

However, it is not all bad news and the Survey shows that over the past 6 years, most countries involved have made improvements, often simply by putting information into the public domain that is already produced. Change is therefore possible and all countries can quite easily reach high levels of budget transparency and participation.

Farmers in India. Photo: Layton Thompson, Tearfund

Farmers in India. Photo: Layton Thompson, Tearfund

Returning to the IF campaign (full name, “Enough food for everyone iF…”), this seeks to mobilise UK and international action to end global hunger. Laura Taylor has given a good summary of the campaign which, among other things, seeks greater transparency so that ordinary people can follow government revenues and spending and make sure it’s spent on tackling poverty and combating hunger.

That’s where the connection comes. Transparency in government budgets enables citizens to see where money is being spent and helps ensure that the best investments are made, whether they be in health care, education or to promote food security and better nutrition.

One example is the Subsidios al Campo campaign in Mexico, which succeeded in getting the government to publish details of the agricultural subsidies to small-scale farmers. The information showed that many of the subsidies went to the wealthiest 10% of farmers, which led to effective pressure to reform the programme and redirect the spending to those most in need.

The iF campaign is therefore calling for the UK and other G8 governments to take a lead in promoting greater transparency across the board – in tax revenues, in land deals and in budgets. Not all of the G8 members fair well in the Open Budget Survey (although the UK is in third place, behind New Zealand and South Africa). Some of their counterparts in the G20 have even further to go.

The UK has two major opportunities to galvanise support for international action around budget transparency in 2013 – as chair of the G8 and co-chair of the Open Government Partnership. The next Open Budget Survey in 2014 – for which the data will be gathered at the end of this year – will show whether they have been successful or not.

To finish, I echo the words of Warren Krafchik, Director of the International Budget Partnership: “Reforms can be accomplished at little to no financial cost and can benefit billions of people. Good budget practices have been identified and standards have been set. Substantial technical assistance is available. The framework to improve exists – all that is typically missing, in many individual governments, is the political will to act. That must change.”

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