UK minister says west must learn to listen better to global south

<span>Photograph: Bing Guan/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Bing Guan/Reuters

The west has so far failed to convince the global south that its concern for Ukraine does not come at the expense of issues such as the climate crisis, the UK foreign secretary has admitted.

Speaking on the margins of the UN general assembly in New York, James Cleverly said “the west will be in trouble unless it learns to listen better to the global south” and conceded that despite his efforts, foreign ministers whom he respects feel they only hear the words “Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine” from figures like him.

“It’s very easy to slip into the habit of just telling people what we want them to do,” he said.

In unusually frank remarks about the state of relations between the G7 and the global south, Cleverly said: “It’s about us listening to what they want to tell us – we have to listen better. And there is a risk that because the US, UK, members of the G7, for example, have traditionally been a repository for the wealth and power, that our instinct is, let’s be generous and say our instinct is to talk. So some of the people that I speak to, some of the leaders in the global south, perceive it as lecturing.”

Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, a thinktank, he said he “had intended to spend this year making it very, very clear that whilst the UK is committed to helping Ukraine defend itself, we were equally committed to helping the developing world deal with their pre-existing challenges. And I thought I was being very, very clear that it’s not one or the other. It’s both.”

He recounted that he had just met a member of the global south on the margins of the UN general assembly who had said to him: “‘James, one of the problems is, of course, you in the G7 only ever talk about Ukraine.’ And I thought: I’ve been really fastidious in balancing the narrative. What they heard was Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, We have got to be sensitive to that.”

Privately, he admits there has been slow progress in persuading key figures in the global south to criticise Russia more explicitly, since they treasure their independence and neutrality. He is trying out a more limited formula that he believes the global south leaders may be more willing to articulate, such as calling for the return of abducted children from Russia, or for Russia to withdraw its tanks.

Some UK government officials feel they are not being given credit for the efforts they are making to address the global south. For instance, at the G20 leaders’ summit in India, Rishi Sunak announced what officials described as “the UK’s biggest single financial contribution to helping the world’s most vulnerable people adapt to and mitigate the impact of climate change”.

The UK announced it would give £1.62bn to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which was established by 194 countries after the Copenhagen accord at Cop15. The GCF is the largest global fund dedicated to helping developing countries reduce global emissions and helping communities adapt to the effects of the climate crisis.

Cleverly may be hampered because he has also overseen a large cut in UK spending on overseas aid at a time when other European powers are increasing their aid budgets.