In conversation with Lord Jack McConnell


The millennium development goals (MDGs) were not all achieved. What can donors and development practitioners do differently to ensure the sustainable development goals (SDGs) are met?

The MDGs changed lives but the SDGs can be even more successful. They have a much stronger foundation based on four years of consultation and they are much more comprehensive. However, this will require urgency and consistent international effort.

Donors and practitioners must support the national plans countries sign up to. Only through clear national strategies can we achieve democratic accountability. Projects in isolation will just be sticking plasters over problems rather than lasting, sustainable solutions. The SDGs are universal, not just for poor people in poor countries, but vulnerable people everywhere. We need accountability for every country.

It is very disappointing that the UK has not volunteered to take part in the SDGs national review this year. As a leader in global development, and supporter of ‘leave no-one behind’ we need to agree soon that we will have a UK action plan that can be used to judge our action internally as well as our support for development elsewhere.

We also need to promote the success of development. We can do more to show the British public that taxpayer money is actually working to help the poorest and the UK.

The UK’s new aid strategy emphasises national interest and security. What implications does this have?

Preventing conflicts, building successful states and improving security in fragile countries is very important – for UK interests and those affected by conflict and poverty. However, overseas development must not be led just by national interest.

It should focus on changing the lives of the poorest and most marginalised. International aid is our return on the riches that we have as a developed country. It is our moral obligation.

The UK is providing increasing amounts of humanitarian aid at the expense of long-term development aid. Should this continue?

Humanitarian aid is not a long-term solution. Even two or three year programmes struggle to make a real, sustainable difference. Reforming a police force after a long, bitter civil war is not a short-term process. Similarly, electoral capacity doesn’t happen after one election, only after many. Development is complex and not without risk.

While I recognise that a humanitarian crisis needs immediate relief, aid must be geared towards longer-term development so countries are secure and successful enough to be independent from aid. Sustainable development must ensure local ownership and local systems of delivery. We do not want aid to be the norm, countries need to raise their own revenue and grow their own economy, on their terms, not ours.

The international development committee has often criticised DfID for transferring large sums to other donors with high administrative costs. How would you tackle this?

I understand that in difficult places it is hard to measure success, but there has been a drift from individual country to cross-country support and multilateral spending, and that is not healthy for sustainable development. As the SDGs recognise, development must be led by national plans: governments taking responsibility, improving their own financial and revenue systems to fund their own development and being held to account by their MPs and their constituents.

How can , or should, we ensure more effective collaboration between the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Commonwealth Office and DfID?

We have talked a good game about collaboration – and in many ways we have been ahead – but we haven’t always practiced what we have preached. The UK’s 0.7% commitment gives us leadership, but we need an integrated approach to defence, diplomacy and development, and we need to be consistent in arguing for – and insisting on – that where we have influence: the UN, Nato, the EU, the World Bank and elsewhere.

Most peace agreements fail and conflict re-emerges. Post-conflict peacebuilding is one of the great failures of the international community. There is a lack of speed, urgency, flexibility, action and integration. It is time to change that.

Migration has had a big impact on the perception of aid. Are the two interlinked?

The major causes of the migration crisis are conflict, instability, injustice and desperate economic need. To deal with these challenges international action is required. But, it would be naïve to think we can, or should, stop migration. It is not a new phenomenon. People have been moving for centuries, even when they had no idea where they were going.

Now, through wider media access, people can see the opportunities available elsewhere. It is a natural human desire to want the best for yourself or your family. While we can reduce the panic and desperation of a migration crisis through conflict mitigation and creating employment in developing countries, we need to get used to the fact that our bit of the world is becoming even more diverse, which is a good thing.

Lord Jack McConnell recently visited a DfID and Adam Smith International youth employment project in Kenya. His article on aid and extremism was featured in The New Statesman.