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What happened to Britain’s wartime know-how?

Senior military figures have called on the British Prime Minster to scrap proposals to increase Britain's overseas aid spending and enshrine it in law. But Britain should keep its promise and go further, restoring the wartime UN to the proper place in its political culture.

Liam Fox’s opposition to a legislative approach to overseas aid indicates a profound ignorance of successful British policy during World War Two. In 1944 Parliament authorised the expenditure of 1% of Britain’s gross national product to help fund the effort to bring immediate aid and economic reconstruction to countries liberated from the Nazis. Britain was not alone, through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration more than 40 countries made similar contributions. The US provided the lions share, but even tiny countries not involved in the fighting such as Guatemala and Liberia made contributions. 

At a time of stringent food rationing Churchill’s government thought it essential to use scarce resources to break the cycle of poverty-induced war. From rebuilding 400 miles of flood protection along China’s rivers to organising self-managed camps for the survivors of the Nazi slave system, its work was a model for twenty-first century post-conflict development policy. UNRRA was supported by a total of $4 billion in 1944 valued currency - some $50 billion in today’s money - and yet it achieved more in worse conditions than is often achieved today.  The official history of UNRRA, written in 1950, judged that the refugee camps only worked because they were never managed. The management and work was run by elected camp committees. Today, despite the rhetoric of democracy and civil society, few international agencies make democratic self-help their model. The practical democracy of the 1940s has been replaced, decades back, with paternalism and job creation programmes for westerners.  If present post-conflict development strategists dust off the reports from UNRRA in the 1940s they will find many other practical and radical strategies of use to Andrew Mitchell, William Hague and their colleagues overseas.

UNRRA sent penicillin factories not just the drug to countries as far afield as Poland and China, and integrated teams enabling everything from public health to industrial re-construction. This was truly a ‘one UN’ created in 1943 - two years before the Charter and San Francisco. According to Ernest Bevin, UNRRA saved Europe and paved the way for the later and more famous Marshal Plan, which was run as a unilateral initiative by the US with stringent anti-communist conditions.

The 1944 House Commons vote of 1% of GDP for UNRRA is a powerful precedent for the current objective of 0.7% of GDP for overseas aid and reinforces David Cameron’s position.  But the broader economic policies adopted by the victors in World War Two provides a greater challenge and opportunity. The example and warning from history could not be plainer. At Bretton Woods the governments led by FDR and Churchill made full employment, the regulation of currencies and global finances the top priorities for the post-war world with the full participation of Stalin. In the 1940s it was generally assumed that unbridled capitalism created the conditions for destitution and war. It made no sense to create UNRRA without a global policy that was broadly social democratic in twenty first century terms. 

Despite the onset of the Cold War the partial implementation of these policies created the longest period of economic growth in Western history. The present fragility of the global economy and third world destitution are needless consequences of the abandonment of the strategic approach defined in 1944. And this strategy was based on the development of the United Nations from the wartime alliance (christened on New Year’s day 1942 by FDR and Churchill as the latter emerged naked from his bathroom) into an integrated system of post-war reconstruction, economic policy making and security, culminating – not starting – in the Charter at San Francisco. 

A key to future social progress is to build on the greatest achievements of the past. Tragically, generations of intellectuals have happily suppressed the achievements of some 40 states in creating the UN to beat the Nazis in order to favour their anti-communist or anti-imperialist agendas. Others simply neglect the achievements of their forbears.  A cursory examination of the record reveals that Bretton Woods was the UN Monetary and Financial Conference and San Francisco the UN Conference on International Organisation. No one stops to ask how these could be UN international conferences before there was a UN. Restoring the wartime UN to the proper place in our culture will be uncomfortable for some. The economic policies are anathema to a World Bank and IMF that have long discarded the commitment to full employment in their statutes – as an international security rather than merely economic objective.

The role of the UN as a war-making machine suits neither pacifists nor unilateralists: so in debates inevitably featuring quotes from Churchill there is no room for his support for a UN Air Force or comment that, ‘It is the only hope of the world.’

About the author

Dan Plesch is the author of America, Hitler and the UN (I.B.Tauris 2011) and The Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace, (Politico's 2004) and Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. Human Rights after Hitler - The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes was published in April 2017.


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