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.
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.
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. As Patrick Freyne suggests, ‘if policy-makers do not recognise what people on the margins are thinking, then people on the margins will continue voting for the unthinkable.’
In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next in 350 words. We've had an extraordinary response and you can read them all here.