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The UK needs to step up to the plate when it comes to its foreign policy, this was the general sentiment at a panel event organised by Big Tent Digital and The HALO Trust last night (27 October).

The panel was chaired by Rt. Hon. Lord Boateng, Former High Commissioner to South Africa, who opened by sharing his thoughts on how COVID-19 has fuelled conflict and poverty:

“We meet in the grip of a worldwide pandemic. Pandemic has revealed the structural faults in our global society. This is as true for conflict and poverty as for anything else. There are 70 million who have been displaced due to violence and conflict, 49 million more have been driven into extreme poverty by COVID-19.”

Rt. Hon. Tobias Ellwood MP, former Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, echoed Mr Boateng’s sentiment and was highly critical of the Government’s current foreign policy strategy saying it is not filling the current gap in the western market for greater leadership:

“The pandemic has been illuminating to us in showing how fragile and uncomfortable the world is at the moment. World order is not in a good place.”

“We need a wider picture here rather than the reactionary response we’re seeing at the moment. There is an absence of strategy and understanding of what needs to be done. You need to have Number 10 able to focus on this.”

“When we look at Dover, and talk about putting the military there to stop people coming to our shores, we’re missing the bigger picture. At the moment, too many plates are spinning and the same five people in Number 10 are doing all the work.”

Nimco Ali, co-founder and CEO of The Five Foundation, highlighted the importance of focusing on gender issues when looking at how to end conflict and alleviate poverty.

“Every single country in conflict has a high level of violence against women too. Gender violence is at the root of creating instability.”

“It is a fallacy to think that girls’ education can happen when conflict and instability are there. We can’t educate girls when women are not free.”

She also argued that western countries have capitulated to China on the world stage:

“The reason we are shying away is that we’re really scared of being seen as the new empire. The new empire is China.”

She went on to say that China is “raping” the continent and that the West needs to step in to counteract its influence:

“China does not give choice to people. Africa has the opportunity to develop through real entrepreneurship. When China is buying out the traditional gatekeepers, we need to invest in the young people of Africa so they can build up their countries and kick China out.”

“We are not looking at the real value of Africa’s women. Africa’s future rests on us, but it is not in the context of the aid industry we can solve that but through investment.”

Hayley Davidson, UK Director at Crisis Action, highlighted the important role played by both international institutions and ground-level civil groups in alleviating poverty and conflict:

“The UK has long recognised that it needs to work in collaboration not just as an aid donor but in building global institutions. Collaboration and coordination is the only way to create stability and end conflicts.”

“Often groups working on the ground have a lot of the answers too and just need to be listened to – often these are women-led groups.”

She also urged the UK Government to “practice what it preaches” when it comes to disarmament and de-escalation of conflicts such as the war in Yemen:

“The government has been very reticent to evaluate and pause its arms sales.”

“There is a real opportunity to take the lead on limiting explosive weapons in highly populated areas.”

Major-General James Cowan CBE, CEO of The HALO Trust, agreed that the UK isn’t doing enough on the world stage to end conflict:

“I do worry that our focus is isolationist and without the confidence we had twenty years ago. We can do more if we had the confidence.”

“What I’d like to see is a sense of strategic intent. I supported the merger of the FCO and DFID, because DFID paid enough attention to conflict. I’d like to see conflict prevention at the centre of the new FCDO.”

“Often, we focus on how lifting people out of poverty can stop conflict but do not have the courage to discuss how we can stop conflict to stop poverty.”

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