Gordon Brown’s Seven Ways to Change the World — softening the hard blows of globalisation

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In his lifetime, Gordon Brown has seen dramatic changes in the world. Borders have been thrown open in finance, trade and communications. For some, huge opportunities have resulted. But for others, globalisation has dismantled the barriers that protected their security, wages and wellbeing. The result has been a divide, now deepened by Covid-19.

The dilemmas of globalisation lie at the core of Seven Ways to Change the World, which joins an expanding library of works offering answers to the problems in the global system and describing a path to a better, post-pandemic future.

Brown’s reflections on this are important. As a politician, the former UK prime minister has grappled since the 1980s with how to harness the benefits of globalisation, while simultaneously managing the risks. Freeing up global finance brought cheaper mortgages but also a financial crisis. Freer trade may bring cheaper food, but bankrupt local farmers — and who do you trust to regulate the overseas suppliers?

In the 1990s many centrist politicians believed that full-throttle globalisation could be managed through a combination of more robust global governance, and generous aid to help the poorest countries compete. This is clearly still the core of Brown’s view. His book underscores the challenges.

In it, he calls for more money for development, including a “Marshall Plan for Africa”. Recall that from 1997, Brown was part of a Labour government that transformed UK aid, adopting a spending target of 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product and creating an independent aid agency. But led by Boris Johnson, the current Conservative government has suspended the aid commitment and merged the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign Office.

After the recent G7 summit, Brown described resulting commitments on vaccines as “an unforgivable moral failure”. Clearly his proposals for more agreed funding for health, education, the achievement of net-zero carbon emissions and the sustainable development goals will be tough to realise in the current climate.

Equally central to this book are reforms to global governance. In several of Brown’s seven ways to change the world (presented across seven chapters), he draws together ideas he has been building since the late 1990s. Reforming the IMF to create an financial early warning system echoes the changes he pressed for after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Similarly, his call for a UN tax convention to ensure fairer payment of tax and greater UN-World Bank co-operation to advance the Sustainable Development Goals echo arguments that Brown made around the turn of the century.

In response to the pandemic, Brown argues for the strengthening of the World Health Organisation and a “burden-sharing formula” for global health contributions. The formula reminds me of that created nearly 80 years ago to apportion contributions to (and votes in) the IMF. Then a big dose of political realism ensured that the US emerged in the leading role of global institutions. This was crucial to ensuring that the US would agree to participate.

The Brown formula for global health contributions works out at 27 per cent for the US and 13 per cent for China (with the UK at 6 per cent), and is buttressed by a chapter on US-China co-operation that reflects on how this kind of practical co-operation issue-by-issue is probably the best way forward for the world’s two leading superpowers.

The problem is that progress towards reforming international institutions has been glacial in comparison with the speed of globalisation. As he notes, some 23 years after he proposed global tax reform at the G7, the US has for the first time announced its support for a global minimum tax. It is not enough, Brown argues. That underscores the challenge.

This is not a self-congratulatory book. If anything, Brown downplays the central role he played getting the G7 to write-off debt of the poorest developing countries in 2005, and rallying the G20 in 2009 to agree a bold plan for managing the global financial crisis. Yet these remarkable successes doubtless continue to fuel his belief in co-operation and institutional reform as the way to manage globalisation.

As he traverses across public health, financial stability, a zero-carbon future, better humanitarian assistance, the closing of tax havens and the prevention of nuclear proliferation, I was left thinking about the alternatives to “acting decisively and together”. What should national governments be doing better to manage globalisation? Doubtless better global governance would make some efforts easier. But given its pitifully slow progress, efforts at the national level should surely be redoubled. Put another way, perhaps there is more scope for acting decisively alone than for some less-than-decisive international co-operation.

This book is a magisterial synthesis of ideas not so much for how to build a fairer better world but for how global co-operation could contribute to that aim. But behind this positive agenda, the dilemmas of globalisation have deepened and sharpened since Brown first entered government in 1997. The robust global governance and more generous aid programs he called for back then look more imperilled than ever.

Seven Ways to Change the World: How to Fix the Most Pressing Problems We Face, by Gordon Brown, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25, 512 pages

Ngaire Woods is dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford

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