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Brexit but Not Splendid Isolation

13/07/2016 11:26 | Updated 13 July 2016

The past few weeks in British politics, and the UK more widely, have been some of the most unsettling in recent memory. The EU Referendum vote was, of course, a seismic event - as one journalist pointed out the following day 'our Prime Minister has resigned and it's only the third story on the news' - and the aftershocks may be even greater than the original quake. Markets are volatile, the pound has hit record lows and politics has been in disarray. We now have a new Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party, an experienced politician with the weight of the party behind her, but there is no doubt there will be more change to come.

There has also been enormous emotional impact. After an extremely polarising campaign, divisions within our society have been exposed and run deep. Millions of people across the UK are at best profoundly unsettled and at worst genuinely afraid of both the impact of Brexit and of the disparities and disaffection it reveals in our society.

Now is no time for further division. It is the moment to invest in stronger, more cohesive societies, to pursue strategies that address the inequity of opportunity, mistrust of elites and disillusionment felt by so many in the UK. But this investment must be made with our eyes firmly on the world beyond our borders.

Now is not the time to turn inwards and away from our positive and progressive role in the world - a world where 1.5 billion people are affected by conflict and violence, where 65 million people have been forced to flee their homes, where poverty, injustice and fear are a feature of everyday life for millions of men, women and children. While we grapple with our own domestic turmoil, our inequalities, our disenfranchised youth, our fear of being overwhelmed by the global crises of displacement and of climate change, much of the rest of the world has been doing the same. In many of the places my organisation, Mercy Corps, works - be it Syria, Somalia or South Sudan - these challenges are much more immediate, life threatening and critical than they are to most people here.

As decisions are being taken about a UK outside the EU, we in the international NGO sector have an important part to play in ensuring widespread understanding of the UK's role in international relief and development. We must continue to champion the UK's enormous achievements - from helping to halve the number of children dying from preventable diseases, to getting 11 million more children into education. We must also be honest about the complexities and risks of what we do, move beyond simplistic messaging and engage with sections of society and the media less inclined to instinctively support us. We must welcome debate, be open to alternative views and accepting of constructive criticism. In a time of increasing populist clamour for 'none of the above' we must do all we can to build and maintain trust in an international third sector ever more interconnected with that of the worlds of politics and business.

Mercy Corps works in some of the toughest places on earth, often in the midst of conflict, to try to build secure, productive and just communities that can emerge from crisis and thrive. In states of high fragility, such as Nigeria and Afghanistan, we've been working (with the UK government's Department For International Development funding) with thousands of young people whose lives have been devastated by conflict, poor governance and lack of opportunity to give them the skills and capacities they need to build a positive future, to reduce the factors driving them to participate in further violence. None of this is easy or without risk, but it is vital.

The UK has never shied away from tackling such global challenges - our politicians, our public, our universities, think tanks and NGOs have made phenomenal contributions to ending poverty and suffering the world over. That's not just about the amount we spend on aid (although we should rightly be proud of the fact that we were the first G8 country to commit to spending 0.7% of our Gross National Income on aid, not to mention the overwhelming public response to natural disasters) but about doing all we can to make sure that aid is spent well, accountably, and that it contributes to real, lasting change even in the toughest places. It is about our wider positive role in the world - through diplomacy, through fair trade policies, through our support for human rights and international law. It is about our ability to lead by example, and press other governments to end corruption, violence and abuse - creating a better world for all of us.

There can be no doubt that we are entering a new era in British politics, one with more uncertainty, but also one where there are new opportunities to set our own priorities for our aid, trade and foreign policy. Those who lead us should follow through on the UK's commitments to help the poorest and most vulnerable in the world; those affected by poverty, by conflict, by fragility. Britain must continue to play a positive role on the world stage. In today's increasingly interconnected world, the outcomes of our actions are increasingly shared beyond our borders - and vice-versa. Adopting short-term policies of isolationism in today's multi-polar, unpredictable and volatile world will only create longer term challenges for all of us.

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