The international development sector met the news of the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU) with a collective groan. There had been dire warnings before the vote on what Brexit would mean for the sector and Britain’s influence on multilateral aid and development policy decisions made by its European partners. These arguments failed to gather any real traction with the public and NGOs suggested that this was largely due to regulatory guidance published by the Charity Commission in England and Wales concerning their participation in the referendum which amounted to the gagging of an important constituency in a crucial debate.research report published earlier this year suggests that overall public confidence and trust in charities has fallen to 5.7 (from 6.7 in 2015) out of ten.
Overall, respondents said that they are more likely to trust small charities (57 percent) over large ones (34 percent) and charities that operate in the UK (61 percent) over those that operate internationally (31 percent). These are worrying conclusions for international NGOs and perhaps signal that the public regard the non-governmental sector as part of the institutional elite against which they were rebelling in the referendum vote. An Ashcroft analysis of leave voters suggests that they were mostly located in the East and South East of England, unemployed or on low incomes, older (60 percent of those over 65 voted to leave) and finished school at secondary level or earlier. Culturally, leave voters regard social liberalism (74 per cent), feminism (74 per cent), multiculturalism (81 per cent), and globalisation (69 per cent) as ‘forces for ill’ in society rather than positives to embrace.
The economist Paul Mason argues that: ‘The Brexit vote was an insurrectionary protest against neoliberalism, globalism and cultural contempt’. The referendum result certainly reflects a deeply divided society along class, cultural and geographical lines; divisions accentuated by the post-2008 austerity politics that have largely targeted vulnerable communities and sectors of society. Brexit could, therefore, be viewed as further evidence of a growing chasm between the lived experiences of a state-neglected and increasingly alienated working class and the NGO sector which they do not regard as a positive part of their lives. Concepts that are championed by the international development sector such as global citizenship and interdependence were, if anything, negatively configured in the Brexit debate suggesting that development NGOs are largely disconnected from ‘leave’ communities.
A particular concern for the international development sector must be the hardening attitudes the referendum debate evinced toward migrants from both within the EU and from the global South. The lowest point of this debate was a UK Independence Party poster titled ‘Breaking Point’ showing a long queue of refugees and migrants awaiting entry to Europe which was reported to the police for inciting racial hatred and compared on social media to Nazi propaganda. Immigration was a hugely influential issue for leave voters and rarely presented in an accurate or positive light. The referendum debate, for example, ignored a study published in 2014 which found that European migrants have made a net contribution of £20 billion to the UK economy, paying far more in taxes than they receive in state benefits. And globally, the World Bank has found that over the past year hard working international migrants sent $441 billion in remittances to their families in developing countries while working abroad.
The positive side of migration however hardly permeated media coverage of the issue, which was often overheated and widely inaccurate, fuelling scare stories of a migrant ‘invasion’ resulting in collapsing services, benefit dependence, ‘stolen’ jobs and houses, and a ‘skiver’ mentality. For example, the leave side claimed that Britain was ‘full’ in terms of claims for asylum from refugees, yet figures from Eurostat show that the UK received 60 asylum applications per 100,000 population in 2015 which is well below the EU average of 260 per 100,000 and Hungary’s total of 1,800. Moreover, 86 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted by countries in the global South, which are least well equipped in terms of resources and aid to support large refugee populations. Most specialist reporting on migration argues that it should be incumbent on the UK and other EU states to shoulder greater responsibility for the world’s refugees particularly when many have been displaced in the first place by western interventions in unstable regions of the global South in the form of military engagement, proxy wars and arms sales. Britain’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, which has just been deemed ‘unjustified’ by The Chilcot Inquiry, is a clear example of this and has sown a whirlwind of discord and contagion of poverty, violence and extremism across the Middle-East.
A more rounded and measured analysis of migration and Britain’s relationship with the global South was mostly absent from the referendum debate and is, perhaps, reflective of deficiencies within the development sector regarding citizen engagement at a local level. We have seen in the 2012 Finding Frames report from BOND that many large NGOs are engaged in shallow forms of learning about development that are linked to transactional levels of public engagement. Public understanding about development consequently remains ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’ and based on the notion that all development problems are resolvable through aid and financial giving which was never the case. This problem is compounded by NGO preoccupation with the policy agenda of government bodies and a growing disconnect with those whom they claim to represent: the poor, marginalised and dispossessed. A BOND report recently suggested that:
“If an NGO maintains a respectful dialogue with its intended beneficiaries, recognising their priorities from their points of view, and beneficiaries shape operational decisions, then this creates a framework within which an NGO’s analysis, response and evaluation are likely to be high quality.”
However, if NGOs lose direct contact with their intended beneficiaries and formulate policies on the basis of what they think policy-makers want to hear rather than the needs of their constituents then a social compact is broken. From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, development agencies were a mainstay of development education delivered to local communities on global issues. They supported grassroots programmes that championed global citizenship, positive values and a deeper understanding of our relationship with the global South. It also sustained critical thinking and action toward social justice and equality. Many of these programmes were abandoned as development agency activities became increasingly led by policy from above rather than the needs of their natural constituents; vulnerable groups and regions. Reflecting on Brexit, Duncan Green of Oxfam asks ‘Would it be better to pull back from the day to day trench warfare of Whitehall and go long term, working with youth, investing more in development education, working on public attitudes to race and ‘Otherness’?’ There can only be one answer to this if the international development sector is to reclaim lost credibility and relevance in the communities that voted leave. Development agencies should re-evaluate how they engage with the public and invest more in domestic development education programmes to help the centre reconnect with the periphery. Patrick Freyne suggested that ‘if policy-makers do not recognise what people on the margins are thinking, then people on the margins will continue voting for the unthinkable.’ The same could be said for NGOs.
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