Brexit and the future of the UK’s international development agenda

Published on 24 June 2016

The referendum result and decision for Britain to leave the European Union signal some extraordinary changes in the UK, in the world, and for international development. The implications are deep and far-reaching, and will affect more or less every aspect of political, economic and social life for decades to come. As the complex process of UK political leadership succession, withdrawal and re-negotiation begins, and as the fall-out in global finances, markets and governance starts to unfold, we are also entering a time of major uncertainty. In this context, it is too soon to elaborate specific responses and implications. But some things are clear, and need to be said.

A commitment to diversity, inclusivity and internationalism

Our values at IDS are firmly committed to diversity, inclusivity and internationalism. This is reflected in our staff and student composition, in the ways we make decisions and organise our work, and the ways we relate to those who research, learn and work with us elsewhere in the UK, in Europe and across the world. In this time of change and unprecedented strain, I feel it incumbent on us to re-state these commitments more strongly than ever.

Development in a changing European and global political landscape

The decision only underlines further the importance of the global challenges we work on, and their urgency in a shifting future. Much of our work focuses on reducing inequalities – inequalities that may intensify and take new forms within and beyond the UK and Europe amidst shifts in financial markets, governance, employment, reduced mobility and migration, rights legislation, and other changes. We must also take seriously the concerns the referendum has revealed about the impacts of globalisation on communities, and the need to find new narratives that speak progressively to people and their concerns in an inevitably interconnected world.

Addressing the challenges of environmental sustainability and climate change is central to our work – yet the referendum signals a very different context for co-operation around environmental issues, and the roles of states, markets, businesses, citizens and alliances between them. Perhaps most obviously, our focus on building more inclusive and secure societies is thrown into sharp focus – demanding renewed vigour to combat the intolerance and playing on fears of insecurity that characterised parts of the referendum campaign; to address issues around migration and mobility in ways that respect social justice, and to explore prospects for new kinds of inclusivity within and beyond borders. There are major implications for global geo-politics and governance, as the post-war European project declines at the same time as other powers and networks – from a changing US and Russia to the BRICS and China’s ‘one road, one belt’ initiative and more – rise to prominence on the world stage.

In many respects, the Brexit decision is part of – and reflects – an even more difficult context in which to assert and pursue a vision of equal and sustainable societies, locally and globally, where everyone can live secure, fulfilling lives free from poverty and injustice. But it also requires us to pursue this vision with greater force – asking critical questions and finding alternative pathways. We must also assert even more strongly the UK’s commitment to international development, to the research that informs it, and to thought leadership around global challenges – even and especially in a new post-EU era.

Time to mobilise and engage

In short, it is time not to retreat, but to mobilise; not to denigrate those with different views but to engage; not to panic but to redouble our effort. A vital debate needs to begin within the UK, Europe and across the world. We will be reaching out to partners and others to consider the implications for our research agenda, for how we continue as a centre of teaching and learning excellence in development studies in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world, and how in a new context we continue our deep partnerships with European colleagues. We will be seeking to help shape and be part of this debate – at the special session we are organising at our 50th Anniversary conference on ‘States, Markets and Society: defining a new era for development’ on 5-6 July, and in many other fora. Please work with us.


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