Can globalisation really work for the poor?: the UK’s 2000 White Paper on development
by HPN staff April 2001

Three years after its first White Paper on Development, the British government published its second, Eliminating World Poverty: Making Globalisation Work for the Poor, in December last year. The paper is nothing if not wide-ranging, covering issues as diverse as new technologies, the arms trade, peacekeeping, corruption and accountability and aid delivery. It commits the British government to a series of targets clustered around the International Development Targets set out in the first White Paper, and subsequently endorsed at the UN’s Millennium Summit at the end of last year. Key elements include the Development Assistance Committee (DAC)’s targets of reducing by half the number of people in ‘extreme poverty’ by 2015; the provision of universal primary education everywhere by the same date; ‘demonstrated progress’ towards gender equality; significant reductions in maternal and infant mortality; and the implementation of ‘national strategies for sustainable development in all countries’ by 2005.

The British government’s undertakings in the White Paper are as wide-ranging as the document’s coverage. In particular, the government pledges to:

  • ‘work with others’ to ‘manage’ globalisation so as to reduce poverty;
  • promote equitable and sustainable economic growth;
  • help developing countries build effective governments, reduce corruption, ensure respect for human rights, and reduce conflict;
  • promote better health and education for poor people;
  • work to strengthen the global financial system, enhance international cooperation on investment, competition and taxation, and encourage ‘corporate social responsibility by national and transnational companies’;
  • support an ‘open and rules-based international trading system’, and continued reductions in trade barriers;
  • tackle environmental degradation;
  • make development assistance more effective, and speed up debt relief; and
  • ‘work with others’ to build a ‘stronger, more open and accountable international system’.

The UK’s development assistance is also set to increase by 45 per cent by 2003–2004, to £3.6bn ($5bn). This is equivalent to 0.33 per cent of gross national product, up from 0.26 per cent in 1997. This is still, however, some way short of the 0.7 per cent target set by the UN.

Underlying assumptions

The White Paper is, by its nature, a political document meant as much for domestic consumption as it is a statement of international development priorities. It is informed by two fundamental ideological positions. The first is a neo-liberal faith in the benefits of globalisation, free markets and trade deregulation. The risk is not, the paper tells us, that globalisation will disadvantage the majority in the developing world at the expense of a Western minority, but that the developing world will somehow be excluded from the gifts that globalisation has to bestow. This is, of course, debatable. Aside from a gnomic reference to the ‘dark side’ of globalisation – namely the proliferation of people-trafficking and child pornography – there is little attempt to answer some of the questions asked of globalisation at Seattle and elsewhere. This position rests on a restrictive definition of globalisation as meaning simply ‘interconnectedness’, rather than a more sophisticated analysis that takes account of the effects of, for example, fully-liberalised trade and unrestricted capital flows. To be sure, the effects of these changes in the global economy can be felt in the developed world, as jobs and capital relocate to more favourable jurisdictions. The difference, though, is that well-developed economies are generally robust enough to make up the shortfalls, either through growth in other areas or through short-term social provision. These responses are often unavailable to the developing world’s poorest people.

The second, linked assumption is that globalisation can be managed to the benefit of the poor. Again, this is a question of definition. If globalisation simply means a more joined-up world, then managing it should indeed be possible by way of greater inter-governmental cooperation in the setting of rules. But if globalisation means a weakening of government authority and a gradual erosion of rules-based systems, then its management becomes distinctly more problematic. Globalisation however defined was not per se behind the collapse of the Thai economy in 1997, but the ease with which capital can move between countries contributed to the spread of the crisis. This may have been a failure of management, but it equally might have been the inevitable consequence of the way in which the system works. This question is not simply academic: it is at least arguable that there is a causal link between the related collapse of the Indonesian economy and the humanitarian crisis in East Timor and continuing internal conflict. There are those further to the political left who would argue that what the developing world really needs is more regulation and protection, rather than attempts to open its markets and societies to Western goods, capital and culture.

The White Paper and humanitarianism

The White Paper has little directly to say to humanitarians, partly because of the rigid distinction it makes between ‘development’ issues and ‘humanitarian’ issues. The budget figures quoted above do not include humanitarian assistance, and the word ‘humanitarian’ crops up just five times in the paper’s 108 pages, and even then primarily in the context either of violations of international humanitarian law, or to describe the military interventions in Kosovo and East Timor. Humanitarian assistance is mentioned just twice.

That said, a number of issues tackled by the paper have clear humanitarian implications. The main one is conflict. Here, however, the analysis is mechanistic: conflict is bad for development, and must disappear before development can happen. This is not, of course, strictly true in all conflicts at all times, nor does it make any connection between the economics of globalisation and the perpetuation, mitigation or resolution of conflict. The Taliban’s involvement in Afghanistan’s drugs trade; the exploitation of timber resources in Cambodia or Liberia; or UNITA’s diamond profits and the Angolan government’s oil earnings are as much part of the ‘dark side’ of globalisation as prostitution. Civil wars can have economic benefits for the combatants, often mitigating against their resolution. If globalisation has made licit trade easier, then it is perhaps safe to assume that it has done the same for the illicit trades that fuel many of today’s most brutal wars. Similarly, the White Paper talks extensively about the role the UN should play in conflict prevention, and backs the proposals set out in the Brahimi report (see the article on Brahimi in this issue). But again, there is no attempt to push this argument further; declarations of support are not the same as wholehearted financial backing, or pledges to cajole the more unwilling members of the international community to honour their commitments to the organisation.

A recipe for fundamental change?

Two White Papers in the course of one government is an achievement in its own right, and demonstrates a clear commitment to development. The paper’s scope is also impressive, as is the range of pledges the UK government has undertaken. But the White Paper is concerned with tweaking the fundamental elements on which the global system is based, rather than putting forward a radical agenda for change. The recognition that developing-country governments need a stronger voice in key multilateral fora is welcome, but this will not guarantee that they get a fairer deal. Welcome too is the White Paper’s talk of enhancing the social accountability of transnational companies – just as much the engines of globalisation as the governments of their home countries. But the paper’s rejection of regulation in favour of encouragement does not augur significant change. Finally, the absence of any detailed discussion of humanitarian assistance is a fundamental weakness in a document dealing with the effects of globalisation. There is little focus on the micro-dynamics of who wins and who loses as globalisation gathers pace, and how this is to be addressed. That there will be losers seems certain; countries and peoples will become increasingly marginalised as assistance flows to countries deemed ‘acceptable’ to donors. What happens to them in our increasingly ‘globalised’ world?


Eliminating World Poverty: Making Globalisation Work for the Poor is available at <>. The UK’s 1997 White Paper, Eliminating World Poverty is at <>