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Lord Jack McConnell, former First Minister of Scotland, discusses recent cuts in UK foreign aid

Lord Jack McConnell

Lord Jack McConnell, former First Minister of Scotland, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss recent cuts in UK foreign aid, international sustainable development and the McConnell International Foundation

We start the conversation by getting Jack’s views on the cut in UK foreign aid from 0.7% of National Income to 0.5% and this month’s House of Commons vote on the matter.

He notes that every other G7 country is increasing its foreign aid this year, not decreasing it, and if there was ever a case for the UK to decrease its foreign aid it's not in the year of a global pandemic and the most important climate change summit since 2015. It's terrible timing and it's in the wrong direction.

We discuss the leading role of the private sector in embracing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) these days and also broaden out the discussion to explore the future of Scotland within the Union, the importance of global education and even delve into the world of single malts for a lighter touch.

Episode Transcript

Alberto Lidji: Jack without further ado, a big heartfelt welcome onto The Do One Better Podcast today.

Lord Jack McConnell: Thank you very much for having me. It's a real pleasure.

Alberto Lidji: It's my pleasure. Why don't we start just by the topic of the day, which is the cut in UK foreign aid from that 0.7% of national income to 0.5%, what are your thoughts on that?

Lord Jack McConnell: Well, most of all, I'm sad. I'm a little bit angry, but I'm more sad than angry. I feel for all those who are being faced this year with the ending of projects that are maybe halfway through... I heard this morning about a project in Afghanistan of all places, you know, right at the top of the news this week, and yet, in Afghanistan, you know, a rural literacy project for women that has just had its funding taken away before the final year of the project. So the women who started a course, which will help liberate them and help them build a democracy and a better society in Afghanistan, in the face of the Taliban are not going to finish the courses. And, this is just desperately, desperately sad.

And I think the UK... I didn't vote for Brexit, but there was a bit of me that could understand this vision of a global Britain and not just being so closely tied to the EU, but I don't think anybody saw that this is what it would mean, you know, that we would become meaner as a society and we would withdraw from our international responsibility.

So I feel sad. We now need to think about the longer term and rebuilding public support for UK development. I think that's been missing in the last few years and we need to rebuild that support and come back stronger. And, not just rely on governments, but all do our own bit too.

Alberto Lidji: Do you see the aid budget coming back up from that 0.5% to 0.7% or something higher even, in the foreseeable...?

Lord Jack McConnell: I don't think the Chancellor has any intention of bringing the aid budget back up again. I think the tests that were voted through yesterday by the 333 or whatever it was MPs, I think those... those tests are designed to make sure we never get back to 0.7%.

I mean, in some ways it, I think it probably does break the law so it's still possible that there could be a challenge through the courts on this. But I think now that those MPs have voted once for these savage cuts, I think they'd probably be prepared to do it again. So I wouldn't be surprised if the government is able to change the legislation, given that the precedent has been set. I think it's terribly sad for the UK and its global reputation and for all the people who are affected by it. I really feel for... I feel for them, I feel for... I can just imagine, I've visited the education projects that we funded in northern Nigeria, where girls are in danger of being kidnapped from their schools because, they go to school, by armed terrorist groups.

You know, these are not just life enhancing, they are life saving projects. And, I cannot imagine what it feels like to be in that situation where you've had a bit of your education, but the rest of it is not going to come forward because the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, sitting in their office in London, have decided to play a political game and pick a fight on this, just because it might help them win some votes in some key constituencies. Very sad.

Alberto Lidji: I guess when you're putting a face to it, it's very different than looking at a black and white Excel spreadsheet.

Lord Jack McConnell: Absolutely. The UK does a lot of incredibly good work around the world. Some of the very best work that we do or have done is in the most difficult places. And it's not always easy to talk about. So when you go into northern Nigeria or you go to Afghanistan or northern Iraq and you see the impact that UK aid makes, not just in its own self, because the money itself is not that huge, really... in global terms.

But it's the catalyst that UK aid... because of the level of trust and the reputation that we have... the catalyst that it becomes to bring other money from other places and to produce some stability in the development of education projects or health projects, or even economic development projects, which... in many ways is even more important because they help people become independent rather than dependent.

You know, I think to have broken that trust.... that reliability of the UK, is deeply damaging. It's damaging for the people who are affected and their human rights and their personal development and their freedoms. But it's also I think deeply damaging for our reputation as a country and that's very sad.

Alberto Lidji: Now, one of the things your hear quite a lot about is about 'yes okay there is this cut from 0.7% to 0.5%.. However, if we're looking at the global ranking, as it were, in terms of the percentage of national income that's being granted as foreign aid by other countries... okay, you have Germany and France who are up there, but countries like Canada, Japan, and certainly the US are well below that 0.5%. Any thoughts on that? And where should we be optimally? I mean, if you were controlling the whole thing should we have it at 0.7%?... Would you have it at a different level ?

Lord Jack McConnell: Well, I think I'll make three quick points about that: one is that every other G7 country is increasing this year, not decreasing. So if there was ever a case for the UK to decrease it's not in the year of a global pandemic and the most important climate change summit since 2015. So, it's terrible timing and it's in the wrong direction. When others are going in the right direction.

Secondly, I think, while the UK has been ahead of some of the other leading democracies, that it's not a bad thing for our role in the world. You know, we have, I think we have obligations, given our colonial past, to places that are underdeveloped. I think we do have historical obligations.

And one of the ways that we meet those obligations is to be involved in aid and development. But also as a country, with good people with a good heart. And we are, you know, we recognize the need to support those in need.

And then the final thing I would say is that the long-term objective is not to have 0.7% GNI (Gross National Income) in UK aid to the developing world for the rest of time. The long-term objective -- and then I have actually supported the Conservative government in some of the ways in which they've changed the spending on aid to meet this objective -- the long-term objective is to create stronger economies and public finance systems in the most underdeveloped countries so that they can stand on their own two feet and not depend on us in the future.

But you can't do that, if you chop and change your policies and you promise spending a certain level and people plan ahead on that basis, and then you cut the budget by 30% overnight just to play politics.

And that's the tragedy of this. There was a long-term strategy. It wasn't perfect. But I think the UK was actually pushing the international community in the right direction and saying that economic development, business and environment, investment, the need for good management of public finance, building the capacity to do all these things. That was a bigger priority in the UK than probably most of the other developed democracies, for our aid.

And we've just cut all those budgets, just at a moment when countries in various continents, were making real progress on these moves towards independence, not dependency. And to pull the feet from underneath them when they were making such progress is cruel and it's very sad.

Alberto Lidji: And possibly not good business either. In terms of investing, you touched on it, in terms of investing for sustainable development and briefly... the private sector... I know that's a topic that's close to your heart as well. Maybe , you know, your assertion might be 'private business is perhaps a little bit further ahead than government when it comes to this'...

Lord Jack McConnell: Absolutely. When the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed in 2015, they were markedly different from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that had proceeded them. And the Millennium Development Goals were really about the developed North in the world, giving more cash to the underdeveloped South, in order to have more primary school places and some better health provisions and some more clean water, but the Sustainable Development Goals change the whole strategy and they recognized the importance of governance, for example, and conflict prevention and building strong democratic institutions as building stability for development.

The famous words of Nelson Mandela, no peace without development, no development without peace. They recognize the importance of infrastructure, of skills, training, of economic investment of the business environment. So not just talking about education, health, water, the key provisions of life, but dealing with these wider issues, so that development could become much more sustainable.

I think governments with one or two notable exceptions, maybe Germany and Japan and other parts of the world, Columbia, one or two others... Most governments have been behind the curve on this and in the last six years, but large parts of the private sector, particularly global multinationals have really grabbed this agenda.

And I'm actually quite heartened by that because that's where the money is. It's much, much more money invested in Subsaharan Africa, for example, by global multinationals and global banks and financial services firms than by governments and development aid. And if we can get that money to be better spent, get the supply chains delivering good jobs, giving training, looking after the environment and so on, operating without corruption, paying tax locally, then that's the way to really change the world in my view. And that's the biggest change that can take place. So I totally applaud those manufacturing multinationals, the big financial services companies that are now on this agenda. I just think government needs to take a look at that and look at themselves and catch up, catch up fast.

Alberto Lidji: Would you say that the corporates are leading the way?

Lord Jack McConnell: Absolutely. The best corporates. I mean, there are some bad corporates, but the best multinational firms, and now the best financial services firms, are right on this agenda and they are driving it down through... not just greenwashing, as we say, they're not just, you know, putting out their nice statements and putting out some of these words on the website, they're actually driving it through their supply chains and the best financial services firms, fund managers and so on, are now starting to look at where they put the money and put real strong conditions on that.

And that is our direction of travel that I think becomes an investible and that is the way to create sustainable economies, real sustainable development around the world where people themselves benefit in their own localities, but also companies benefit from proper sustainable long-term investment that helps them grow over the years and not just have boom and bust.

Alberto Lidji: In terms of catching up, where is it that they can catch up or where should they be focusing on? Is it the regulatory framework, is it the incentivizing...?

Lord Jack McConnell: I think it's aid development, I think tax frameworks, not just global tax rules, but national tax rules as well, tax frameworks and incentives, I think in trade agreements, but also just in terms of leadership. What's to stop, the leadership of, for example, the UK government having a national business council, that is focused on delivering the SDGs at home and abroad? That's doesn't cost anybody any money. That's a good thing to do. To provide the weight and the strength of leadership that the government can provide is a good thing to do. And there have been, you know, there've been the occasional business summits and so on as part of the response to the pandemic and talk of build back better.

But let's... in this country, for example, why don't we create a national SDG, business council. The government would be sitting in the chair and listening to business, doing things that help businesses deliver on the SDGs, but also making sure that they can catch up as well.

Why doesn't the government have a national government forum where the prime minister, the first ministers of the devolved nations, the big metro mayors and all sit down and agree a strategy to deliver these SDGs inside the UK. Why are the SDGs not front and center in every single aid investment that we make through our aid budget?

You know, these are basic questions that are not difficult for government to answer, but there's been a lazy approach, not just by the party in power at the moment in the UK. But I think by politicians of all parties, I think they've been slow to see the potential of this agenda in a way that I don't think the private sector would have been slow. I think the best people in the private sector absolutely get this. And, they are far ahead of the politicians.

Alberto Lidji: You quoted Mandela a little bit earlier and mentioned about peace and development. And, you touched on conflict. I know your foundation, in the McConnell International Foundation, peace building is one of those things that is one of your focus areas. Give us a little bit of a flavor for what's going on, because obviously you can't have international development if you have people, you know, huge numbers of refugees, displaced persons, conflict, that's in perpetual motion.

Lord Jack McConnell: Well, as a foundation we support education projects and the developing world generally, but we have particularly supported education for refugees. And, you know, if you've ever visited one of the big refugee camps, you know, for example, in northern Iraq or some very, very big camps across the Subsaharan Africa as well. And you go back again, you know... go once there and I always like to go back, you know, you go back and you see just what little progress is made in terms of education provision for, for these kids who can spend years living in these camps.

So I think that's a critical provision and one that I continue to advocate for it as well as try and support financially when we can. But I also believe very strongly in supporting good governance and in most conflict situations in the world today, the conflict is between a majority and a minority inside a country. The only solution to that conflict is political and a political solution normally involves giving people some kind of empowerment.

And there are very few international organizations that support subnational government, that is emerging from a conflict scenario. So if there's a peace agreement that agrees that an area will have some autonomy and will have their own government and parliament and their region or their historic national area, then there's not really a global support network for that. Because global support tends to come to fully fledged states that are members of the United Nations.

So, for example, in the Philippines, I've been supporting now for seven years the Bangsamoro peace process in the southern Philippines, 40 years of conflict, hundreds of thousands of lives lost, massive under-development in the Bangsamoro region. But the leadership of the former rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, committed to the peace process but inexperienced in parliamentary politics.

So I've been using my experiences as First Minister in Scotland, I've been helping them move over the years, prepare for this democratic parliament they're going to have. Just last night I was reading, they have a local government code in draft form for the relationship between the new devolved parliament and the local government units in the region. It's about 200 pages long, I was reading it last night and preparing some advice on it. You know, probably it feels like one of the most worthwhile things I've done in the last 15 years. And, I think the people involved are good people in the main and they want to do the right thing, but they benefit from having, you know, somebody that they can consult with and chat to about it.

I had people like that when I was First Minister; I enjoyed their experience and I'm very happy to share mine.

Alberto Lidji: It's unfair to ask you to choose but, based on your experience and your expertise and what you can leverage most to make most impact going forward, is the governance piece arguably where you would see yourself now in the, in the forthcoming years...?

Lord Jack McConnell: Well, I've become more and more strongly committed to the idea of actively promoting democracy and democratic institutions, the rule of law, over the last 20 years, you know. I think we're in a bit of a battle around the world between those two believe in democracy and the rule of law and those who don't. And I think we need to stand up for what we believe in. So I'm absolutely convinced of the need for those of us active globally who believe in that to be more vocal and better organized. And I welcome the fact that, for example, President Biden and others seem to be engaged on this . I think theJapanese now are as well and the scope for global alliances on this.

But I've always believed and I believe this passionately, that education and learning is the greatest liberation for the individual. So while good governance and democratic institutions and the rule of law are vital for society and for countries and for sub-national entities as well. I absolutely believe in the power of education as the greatest liberating force and I'll fight for education until the day I die. You know, that spark that a teacher can light in a pupil, the incredible feeling of release and knowledge that can come from a young person learning something new for the first time. Or even just the basic capacity to have skills for everyday in life, you know, and the way that that helps people survive, never mind thrive, is just sort of vital.

To me, education will always be my number one passion. When I was seven years old I wanted to be a mathematics teacher, and that's what I became. And today I might not be teaching in the classroom anymore, but I still love being in the classrooms and I'll fight for education until the day I die.

Alberto Lidji: Absolutely. I have to embrace what you're saying there very much. I think the power of education, SDG 4 for all of those who may not know, invaluable, absolutely invaluable.

So you're speaking like a former teacher, perhaps one is never a former teacher, you're always a teacher once a teacher. And your journey is remarkable.

So here we have a school teacher, who ends up leading the Scottish Government, who ends up in the House of Lords, who ends up who knows where in 10 years' time... Give us a little bit of a flavor for that journey, that personal narrative,

Lord Jack McConnell: It's not always easy to explain it. I am quite unusual, I think. There are not very many senior Labour politicians in the UK who... In fact in most countries, actually, whose father was a sheep farmer, grew up on a sheep farm in the middle of nowhere almost and then as a mathematics teacher, that's a pretty unusual journey into Labour politics, maybe of all politics.

When I was growing up in the hills I wasn't really interested in the farm. I was determined from a young age to get away from that lifestyle. I could see the toll it took and how hard it was. And I was convinced by my mother and my aunties that passing my exams at school was the way to get out and get on.

But I also did a lot of reading and I read about the world. I developed an interest in that from a young age, so I was fascinated by what was happening around the world. So I suppose a lot of my convictions, my passion for what I do politically and through the foundation has come from those early days.

So at that time I felt, I mean, I remember as a teenager feeling that education was really important, although I was badly behaved at school, I did believe that it was important. I was interested in what was happening in around the world and peace and inequality and these kinds of issues as well. And maybe the two are linked.

I remember watching the Soweto school massacre in South Africa on the TV. And being astonished that black kids were basically slaughtered by the police for marching for their education. So there were probably moments like that, stuck in my mind, as a young kid. So then I pushed my horizons a bit wider.

I loved being a teacher and I I'm still in touch with quite a lot of my former pupils. Facebook and so on has been an opportunity over the years to make those old contacts. I know some of their journeys, I know where they came from. I know what they were like in the classroom when I first met them and I'm chuffed as anything about where some of them ended up. There was one girl in particular who I thought was more capable than she thought she was. And I worked hard with her to get... to pass her maths exam, back in the day. She went on and studied accountancy at college. And she's now director of finance at one of the biggest firms in Scotland. And, she signs multimillion pound deals. So I take lot of pleasure from that.

But the classroom was never enough for me, I always wanted to go a bit further . I didn't want to be part of the system, I wanted to run the system.

Alberto Lidji: What was that like? Because in some respects you could say you were running the Scottish government, you were running the system.

Lord Jack McConnell: It came much earlier than I expected it to, but you know, it was a fabulous privilege. I had a good cabinet, good people all trying to do the right things, we made some significant changes in Scotland. Some of which have been reversed by our successors, as happens in politics, but many have not been. I'm proud of some of the stances that we took. We started the process of taking a more positive approach to immigration in Scotland, for example, and a more wholesale approach to sectarianism, which has been a bad problem in Scotland for a long time.

And those two issues, you know, what we did on that I think still has an impact in Scotland today, many years on. And we were ahead to the rest of the UK on banning smoking in public places. And that has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives in Scotland.

Alberto Lidji: You were taking the lead on that if I remember.

Lord Jack McConnell: Yeah, there was a lot of debate and division at the UK level and what to do in England and Wales. I was originally a skeptic, but I was persuaded by one colleague in particular that I should go for it. And by the many young people I met, who all were in favor of it, I have to say. We had a big consultation and every single young person was very strongly in favor of a ban, and that had an impact on me as well.

But then we had... incredibly good at execution. I mean, the original decision, you know, I'm happy to take the credit for it, but I didn't actually execute the decision. It was my health minister, Andy Kerr, who was outstanding and his team of civil servants and health officials and they got the legislation right. They got the public messaging right. Good comparison to today and the last 12 months -- it was consistent, it was clear, and we went from a country that was reluctant to back the ban to a country that accepted it the day it came in. And, there were no incidents, no arrests on the day came in in March, 2016 and I'll be forever very proud of that.

Alberto Lidji: A slightly different topic, but still connected very much... Unfair perhaps to ask, you don't have to answer, but where do you see things playing out in Scotland? I mean, are you feeling optimistic that the Union will be the Union that... ?

Lord Jack McConnell: Well I think the country is clearly divided and it's divided because -- in the main, I think -- divided because those who believe that a United Kingdom of some sorts is a sensible arrangement for government across these islands, have, I don't think, been able to put across a positive case for that for the past decade. Maybe even longer. And I think that's at the heart of the problem that currently exists. The level of support for independence is broadly between 45% and 50%. There was a period last year when the UK Government was making a complete mess of COVID that support for independence went higher for several months, but it's pretty consistently between 45% and 50%.

The UK Government has basically become divorced from Scotland over the course of the last 20 years. And there needs to be a massive program of re-engagement, listening as well as acting, and UK ministers need to make themselves relevant in Scotland again, not by pushing the devolved government aside, but by in their own departments showing an interest in Scotland. And that's not been the case over recent years. And I believe very strongly that that is an absolute prerequisite for support for Scotland remaining in the UK increasing.

Alberto Lidji: So that's Scotland on a serious level. Now if we take Scotland on a less serious level, or perhaps arguably even a more serious level, a favorite single malt?

Lord Jack McConnell: Oh!, I'm actually personally not much of a whisky drinker but if I did drink whisky I'd probably follow my father's example, he was never too keen on the island malts, he was always more keen on the Speyside malts. I'd probably go in that direction, which is strange coming from an Islander, but then life is strange.

Alberto Lidji: That's good. So we're running out of time, but I always like to ask what's that key takeaway you'd love for the audience to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode?

Lord Jack McConnell: It may seem obvious on a show which is about people listening, as well as somebody like me talking. But I think listening is my key takeaway.

The best decisions I have made in my life, I have made with conviction and determination, but I've made after I have listened. And I think the single greatest quality that leaders can have, but also that people can have in their everyday life, is the ability to listen. Some people are more decisive than others after they listen, and that's the nature of the human race. That's fine I'm happy with that. Some are more inclined towards decision-making and leadership than others, but if everybody listened a bit more, we would be much better.

Alberto Lidji: I love it. Absolute pleasure hosting you on The Do One Better Podcast today, Jack. Really great insight and I wish you good luck with the work of your foundation. The insight that you've shared with us today has been wonderful. So, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Lord Jack McConnell: Well, thank you very much. And you know, I think you've covered an incredible range of people on your podcast over the last period. And you know, I think it's great. We can't have enough public discussion of these important issues and people's life experience. So, you're contributing to that, so well done and thanks for having me on.

About the Rt Hon Lord Jack McConnell

Lord Jack McConnell was First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007. He served as UK Special Representative for Peacebuilding from 2008 to 2010, when he was appointed to the House of Lords.

Lord McConnell is Chancellor of the University of Stirling, a global adviser with PwC, Chair of the Sustainable Development Panel of Scottish and Southern Energy, and Deputy Chair of the UK/Japan 21st Century Group.

He is currently Co-Chair of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development; Vice President of UNICEF UK; an adviser to the peace process in the Philippines and Chair of the McConnell International Foundation.

Jack has a keen interest in sport, serving as Chair of the Commonwealth Games (Scotland) Endowment Fund and as Honorary President of Scottish Athletics.

From 1999 to 2011, Jack McConnell was a Member of the Scottish Parliament. He was Scotland’s Minister for Finance 1999-2000; Minister for Education, Europe and External Affairs 2000-2001, and President of the Legislative Regions of Europe in 2004. He grew up on a small sheep farm on the Isle of Arran, Scotland and was a high school Mathematics teacher before entering Parliament.


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