Brexit was a backlash against globalisation – the poorest are being left behind everywhere

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The historic ‘Brexit’ vote was about much more than a small island’s fear of immigration and a remote European government. It was a backlash against globalisation itself. And development is as much part of the problem as it is the solution.

Voters in the UK were voting against free markets and free labour, against winner takes all capitalism that pits worker against worker; marginalised against marginalised. It’s the outcome of years of austerity that saw people jobless, threatened and insecure. As economist Dani Rodrik put it succinctly “Less skilled workers in advanced countries haven’t done very well out of globalisation.”

Read the full article here, originally published in The Guardian.

Sound familiar? We’ve fought these issues in the developing world for years: structural adjustment, leading to low pay, insecure work or privatised public services. The poorest left behind. Brexit was about neoliberal economics that beats a drum to the mantra of keeping wages low and work insecure; one that prioritises trade over people.

The development community’s initial reaction to Brexit, I suspect, will be to defend aid, to defend refugees, to defend compassion. But we need to look deeper. For at least the past thirty years, the development ‘project’ has fully embraced this liberalisation model, whatever story we try to tell ourselves.

We may talk about trade justice, about better regulation, about inequality, about sustainability or about human rights. But make no mistake: we’re complicit in stoking the flames of discontent. Brexit is as much a story about development as it is about a failing Europe.

In a gradual evolution over the last 30 years, Robert Chamber’s Putting the Last First approach to development was ultimately trumped by CK Prahalad’s “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” Somehow, the message that we can have it all – rich getting as rich as they want, pulling up the poor as they go – became mainstream, even though we knew it wasn’t working, even though we knew some were being left behind.

Development NGOs or aid agencies aren’t responsible for unfair free trade deals, or export processing zones where taxes aren’t paid, or low wages. But we have thrown our hats in with the globalisation project with gusto, softening it through calls for regulation, or some corporate social responsibility damage control. Many quietly accepted “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, entering into partnerships with their fingers crossed. It’s capitalism with a human face, but no more.

The mainstream development community has effectively given up, rolled over and gone to sleep. And in our slumber, we’ve ignored what’s really important – more important than wages, than jobs, than healthcare or education – we’ve ignored power and politics. We’ve ignored the stark fact that globalisation has taken power away from people, over their lives and their livelihoods. Ultimately it was more important to people to have some control, than the meagre bones thrown at them by globalised capitalism. Low paid jobs and an insecure future do not equal power.

If we’re blind to power, and neutral to politics, we can never have development. Making globalisation a bit ‘less bad’ hardly equates to a vision that people can buy into. Development needs to offer something better than this: a vision that’s an alternative to globalisation, one where people don’t just have a roof over their head and some food to eat, but most importantly, have power over their lives and their futures.

In the aftermath of Brexit, Ben Phillips, Campaigns and Policy Director at Action Aid International wrote a call to arms: “In humanity’s best moments, crises have brought a recognition of solidarity. In humanity’s worst moments, crises have precipitated people turning on other people – refugees, immigrants, foreigners, people who look different. Those are the two reactions that people have to massive economic crises – either expand fraternity and find that there are many like you and that we need to work together to make the economy work for all, or take on the other.”

”Take back control” was the slogan of the British official Leave campaign. The writing is on the wall that this is what people all over the world are feeling. Unless development rejects a narrow definition of “poverty reduction”, embraces politics, and redefines itself as being about confronting power, the world will become more divided, more fractured, and ultimately – poorer. Development, already questionable, will well and truly have failed.

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