‘We’re in danger of a runaway world’: David Miliband on climate, conflict and his life in New York

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David Miliband in Greece (M Koutoulia)
David Miliband in Greece (M Koutoulia)

David Miliband is feeling a pang of homesickness. The former foreign secretary, who moved to New York in 2013 to be head of the International Rescue Committee, is thrilled when he finds out I am speaking to him from north London. Covid restrictions have kept him away from the UK for 18 months, the longest he has been away from home, “but I don’t want to feel too sorry for myself. I have large quantities of PG Tips and I’ve found a lovely shop in New York that sells sausage rolls, Crunchies and garibaldi biscuits”. He is speaking to me from his house on the Upper West Side, sitting in front of a crammed bookshelf, which displays signs of his previous life — his old parliamentary red box balances on top of it, next to a sign reading “the right hon David Miliband MP”. 

He served South Shields for 12 years, rising fast and heralded as a potential future prime minister until he was beaten in the leadership election by his younger brother, underdog Ed, in 2010. When he moved to New York in 2013 with his wife Louise Shackelton and two adopted sons, some saw it as seeking refuge from a family feud. That’s all history now but at one point Ed comes up in our discussion and at the mention of the E-word, Miliband mysteriously loses his Wi-Fi connection. “The signal has totally cut out,” says Miliband with a nervous laugh. “I promise it is not because you have mentioned Ed.” 

Leaving politics, Miliband swapped one huge job for another. At the IRC he oversees projects in more than 40 countries around the world and “it gives you a sense of purpose; if you run an NGO you’ve got less power than if you are in government but you have fewer obstacles to yielding it”. 

He has barely aged since leaving political office and still fits Alastair Campbell’s old nickname Brains (referring to his intellect but also to the Thunderbirds puppet he bears some resemblance to). He wears a purple V-neck jumper and speaks intelligently about the challenges we face, chiefly “a runaway world, where the climate crisis creates disaster beyond control; where the rule of international law is in such retreat that we are seeing starvation being used as a weapon of war. Democracy is in retreat - eight per cent of the world’s population live in fully democratic societies.”

In the background, his son’s cats prowl around, “they are obviously fascinated by my conversation”, he says with a grin. They are called Pooky and Sammy (incidentally, Ed’s son is called Samuel).

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For the past two years, the IRC has focused on three Cs; conflict, climate change and Covid, which “hit us like a meteorite, it feels like we are running up a downward escalator because of the pandemic and the amount of conflicts going on”. He highlights work they have done helping women and girls to change their communities, for example a South Sudanese refugee he met in Kampala, Uganda who the IRC helped to run a banana ripening business, with a business support grant. She left Sudan after her sister was murdered in front of her. “She used the money from the bananas to pay for shoes, school books and pencils for her daughter to go to school. When we spoke, her daughter was a student at the University of Kampala, doing a Master’s degree in public health. She wanted to go back to South Sudan to make her country better. The work we do is not just traditional humanitarian projects, it is about women and girls who are the future of their communities andd countries. It is about building new partnerships. To be a successful humanitarian organisation you have to be a feminist organisation.”

To be a successful humanitarian organisation you have to be a feminist organisation

They have made a conscious effort to make sure projects are reaching women and girls. This is particularly acute in Afghanistan, where 44 per cent of the 1,700 people working for the IRC are women, including the acting country director who is Afghan. Miliband is “full of concern for our staff there, but I think there is no point re-debating the wisdom of the withdrawal or the way in which it was done. We are in a fix now where literally 95 per cent of the country are going to be in poverty if we can’t breathe the life into the economy and boost humanitarian aid. We can pay our staff but if public sector nurses and teachers are not paid you can’t run a health system. And if the banking system’s broken, which it is at the moment, then no amount of humanitarian aid can make up for that. I think Biden has some big choices there. My own view is that having seen faltering progress especially for women and girls in Afghanistan; the visceral cry from our staff that they don’t want to be abandoned must be heeded.”

When Miliband left politics, “I wanted to do something in tune with my values and that would give me a sense of putting them into practice”. But there have been criticisms of his £768,000 salary at the IRC. “It is right to be transparent about this,” says Miliband. “An independent committee of the IRC board decides on this and it is right I am paid just below the average of large New York NGOs, it is peer comparison. We just speak to the facts and the work we do.” 

Much of their work is being made more challenging by what is happening to the climate. As the world’s power players make their way to COP26, Miliband, who was environment secretary from 2006-7, wants to talk about how extreme weather is already affecting communities in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, while drought in Afghanistan means 95 per cent of households do not have enough to eat. 

David Miliband in the DRC (O Acland)
David Miliband in the DRC (O Acland)

“As environment secretary, I used to paraphrase de Gaulle’s quote about how war is too important to be left to the generals; the environment is too important to be left to environment secretaries,” he says. “The portents are not encouraging.” We are going through what he calls an “age of impunity”, in which both authoritarian governments and democracies are flouting the rule of law and getting away with it. “The danger when times are tough is that people look inwards. The world is more connected, Covid is the ultimate symptom of a connected world, but the response has been a symptom of disconnected politics. If we continue to mismanage, the poorest will suffer most. The stakes are very high at the moment.” He doesn’t know the current foreign secretary Liz Truss but says “it should be a good thing that she is also minister for equality”. 

But what he is describing sounds like the opposite of Boris Johnson’s vision of “Global Britain”. “Global Britain could mean being a force for sustainability, a force against poverty, for international law, but the aid budget is being cut - people notice that - there are big questions about climate, the Government proposing to break international law [on the internal markets bill last year] is seen around the world. The danger for Britain is that it is seen as having a pick and choose approach to international engagement; that is unwise. Britain still has remarkable global assets - its people, NGOs, businesses, culture, in some ways its government - but they have been much reduced by Brexit. I called Brexit an act of unilateral political disarmament. We need a governed globe rather than an ungoverned globe and to the extent that the government is not doing that the rest of us have got to try and fill in some of the pieces.”

Is he sure he doesn’t want to do his bit by going back into politics? “This isn’t a good thing for a 56-year-old to say but I don’t know what I’m going to do next. Career planning has never been my forte. When I was growing up I wanted to be a bus conductor and I completely failed on that. I am always surprised by how things turn out, I haven’t got great foresight.”

He still has a great deal of respect for politics. “I’m not just saying this because of the terrible killing of Sir David Amess, people go into politics because they want to make their community or country or the world better and that is true whether you are Labour or Tory or Lib Dem or Green. Politics is a noble vocation about making peoples’ lives better and politics is something to be applauded not denigrated and not for politicians to be demonsied.”

David Miliband and his partner Louise Shackelton (Getty Images)
David Miliband and his partner Louise Shackelton (Getty Images)

He is tentatively hopeful about the future of Labour. “Obviously Keir Starmer is a vast improvement on what went before. It totally grieves me that Labour has lost four elections and had 11 years out of power. A lot of my friends are doing incredible work as MPs and councillors. It is a massive rebuilding job. There are some stark lessons from the last 10 years.” Curiously he doesn’t mention his brother, shadow business secretary, but perhaps he is one of the friends he refers to. He is looking forward to coming to London for Christmas but aghast at the UK’s refusal to make masks obligatory. “I don’t understand why there’s now a debate in the UK about whether we should be better safe than sorry, that’s pretty worrying. It is false opposites to say we want to do boosters not masks. You do both. It feels pretty safe in New York. On the subway 98 per cent of people have masks on. My kids wear masks all day at school and have done for 15 months.” His sons, 15 and 12, like watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, while their parents enjoy The Durrells, “which makes us a bit twee probably”. 

Living in the US right now is “sobering”. Biden’s election was “a remarkable day, you felt we were being released from a nightmare” but we can’t be complacent. Trump still has a “vice-like grip on the Republican party”. “I have never been more worried about US democracy than I am now. This country has got big unresolved arguments and there are competing versions of reality, one of which is rooted in the real world the other of which is not. People are debating whether climate change is real. The number of people who sincerely tell you that the riots in January were the work of the CIA or Bill Gates is implanting tubes into our blood through vaccinations should make you worried. In a world where democracy is in retreat and democratic norms are being eroded, we can’t afford a broiling America. It has to work through some deep animosities.”

Further afield, we have to roll out the vaccine across the world, “two per cent of people in places we work are vaccinated. That should be a wake-up call... The variants are going to keep winning unless we can amp up the vaccines fast”. It all sounds quite overwhelming but Miliband wants to focus on practical solutions. “At a time when governments are in retreat from big global problems, NGOs and the corporate sector need to step-up and provide leadership. I was brought up to believe that if you can make a difference, you should and if not it is a waste.”

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