Policy & Practice - A Development Education Review



Brexit, Trump and Development Education

Development Education Perspectives on Migration
Spring 2017

Stephen McCloskey

Abstract: This article argues that the social and economic inequalities that have fed the growing popular disconnect with mainstream politics manifested by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as United States president, demand more from education.  It suggests that a wider adoption of the radical, participative, empowering and action-oriented development education approach to learning is needed to provide the kind of critical thinking required in today’s world of ‘alternative facts’.  Greater support of coalface, community-based development education particularly in politically disconnected and economically marginalised areas could help to restore hope, confidence and agency to communities that have been seduced by a resurgent political right.

Key words: Brexit; Donald Trump; Development Education; Social and Economic Inequalities; Participative Learning; Empowerment.


The political systems on both sides of the Atlantic have been subjected to seismic quakes and perpetual uncertainty following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) by referendum in June 2016 and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States (US) in November.  Political commentators have been left scratching their heads in determining how these events came to pass and what Brexit plus Trump actually means for us all.  Brexit and Trump have been bracketed together in this debate because similar factors seem to have played a part in their outcomes.  They include the mutually professed political affinity of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, the dominant voice in the leave campaign during the referendum.  Both are popular nationalists who made political capital from platforms that sought a reclamation of a perceived lost sovereignty and promotion of protectionism to restore stalled economic lustre.  They positioned themselves as outsiders shaking up the failed political establishment and appealed to communities in deindustrialised regions like Tyneside and Pennsylvania that felt abandoned by the political elite.  The economist Thomas Piketty found evidence of this decline in the United States (US) with new research showing ‘that over the last 30 years the growth in the incomes of the bottom 50% has been zero, whereas incomes of the top 1% have grown 300%’ (Oxfam, 2017: 2).  And in the UK, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2016) found in 2014-15 that 13.5 million people or 21 percent of the total population were living in low-income households; a proportion that has barely changed since 2002-03.

          One of the most alarming social indicators of poverty in Britain has been the increased recourse to foodbanks by people on low income and benefits.  The Trussell Trust (2016) reported that between April and September 2016 the number of three-day emergency food supplies distributed by foodbanks in the UK was 519,342 compared to 355,982 in the same period in 2013.  Nearly one quarter of those who received food parcels in 2016 were on low incomes beset by problems such as ‘low pay, insecure work or rising costs’.  What emerges from these statistics on poverty in the US and Britain are people struggling to reconcile stagnant wages with increasing costs for food, heating and other essentials like clothing.  Meanwhile, at the other end of the economic scale we are witnessing the accumulation of grotesque amounts of wealth by the one percent; billionaires taking advantage of high yield investments and low tax havens.  A report published in January 2017 by Oxfam found that ‘eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’ (Oxfam, 2017: 1).  The report suggested that the ‘very design of our economies and the principles of our economics have taken us to this extreme, unsustainable and unjust point’. It clearly points to the fact that neoliberalism, the economic paradigm that underpins this social and economic polarisation, ‘wrongly assumes that wealth created at the top will “trickle down” to everyone else’ (Oxfam, 2017: 6).

Racism and Islamophobia

Static incomes and high unemployment in communities cut adrift by the global economy and impacted by sunset traditional industries only partly explain the political traction of Farage and Trump.  We can add to this toxic mix the spectre of racism, particularly but not exclusively directed at Muslims.  Amid increasingly rancid posturing toward Islam, Trump vacillated during his election campaign from initially promising to ban all Muslims from entering the United States (US) to the ‘extreme vetting’ of immigrants (BBC, 2016). He also pledged that every single undocumented immigrant living in the US - of which there are 11.3m – ‘have to go’ (Ibid).  Post-election the deportation threat has been narrowed somewhat to two to three million people who ‘are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers’ (Gabbat, 2015). Mexican immigrants in particular have been described by Trump in appallingly racist terms.  Mexico, he said, ‘are (sic) sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists’ (Ibid).

          The enduring image from the EU referendum debate in the UK was a poster unveiled by Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) just days before the vote that screamed ‘Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all’ (Safdar, 2016).  It showed thousands of refugees in Slovenia in 2015 who had just crossed the border with Croatia and the obvious message to voters was that membership of the EU was exposing Britain to similar levels of immigration. Commenting on the poster at the time, journalist Anaella Safdar (2016) said:

“The image suggests that refugees are somehow to blame for financial issues in the United Kingdom and this is simply not the case. Framing the photo in this way turns the image into a piece of political propaganda. It fuels race-based discrimination and hatred”.

The poster’s strapline said to voters ‘We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’.  The image and associated messaging suggested that the UK was struggling to cope with a sharp spike in refugees that was placing public services at ‘breaking point’. 

The realities of the refugee crisis

The facts on refugees point to a different reality with the UN’s Refugee Agency estimating that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries not the EU (Refugee Council, 2016). In the first two weeks of  November 2016 alone, more than 44,000 refugees from South Sudan arrived in Uganda which is greater than the total that arrived in Britain in all of 2016 (Ibid).  The Refugee Council found that the UK had the sixth highest number of asylum applications in the EU in 2016 and was ranked 16th in terms of asylum applications per ‘head of resident population’.  Between January and September 2016, Germany had received 781,000 asylum applications which towered over the UK total of 41,000 or just 3 percent of the EU total (Ibid).  In a global context, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR, 2015) reported that there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in 2015 with the majority of 68 percent hosted by countries in Africa and the Middle-East; just 6 percent were hosted in Europe. The top five hosting countries for displaced people are: Turkey (2.5m); Pakistan (1.6m); Lebanon (1.1m); Iran (979,400); and Ethiopia (736,400) (Ibid).  It is therefore the countries least able to cope with large numbers of incoming refugees who host the majority and EU states, by contrast, host the smallest number.  Britain, for example, has hosted just 4,414 Syrian refugees since the conflict began from a total of 4.8 million and promised to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 which is a paltry 4,000 a year (Refugee Council, 2016).

          This is not to underplay genuine public concerns about migration or to ignore the spike in the number of migrants, particularly from countries in conflict such as Afghanistan and Syria, trying to make their way to Europe. Public services can be strained by new arrivals and communities may feel ill-equipped or even threatened by the location of migrants in their locality. But the reality of inward migration in Britain is often exaggerated both by the media and politicians.  For example, by the end of September 2016, the Refugee Council reported that Britain received just 29,246 asylum applications suggesting that comparatively few migrants are seeking safety there. 

Spike in race crime

But UKIP, like Trump in the US, has managed to configure migration in uniformly negative terms and peddled myths that resonated with many who voted to leave the EU. Migration has been used as a straw man by Trump and Farage to account for, at least in part, stagnating wages, the decline in public services and lack of decent jobs.  This in turn has resulted in rising levels of hate crime and racism with ‘nearly 900 hate incidents’ reported within the 10 days following Trump's election on 8 November (Rifai, 2016). These incidents included ‘a spike in assaults, intimidation, and harassments towards ethnic and racial minorities, including children, women, and the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender) community’ (Ibid).

          Similarly, in the month following the EU referendum there was a 41 percent increase in the number of racially or religiously aggravated crimes recorded by 31 police forces in England and Wales (Forster, 2016). This spike in racist attacks in the US and UK suggested that the perpetrators felt emboldened as if their views had somehow attained a level of credibility or even respectability as a result of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election.  In assessing the impact of the alignment of economic stasis with negative political outpourings on migration, Oxfam suggested that:

“From Brexit to the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, a worrying rise in racism and the widespread disillusionment with mainstream politics, there are increasing signs that more and more people in rich countries are no longer willing to tolerate the status quo. Why would they, when experience suggests that what it delivers is wage stagnation, insecure jobs and a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots? The challenge is to build a positive alternative – not one that increases divisions” (Oxfam, 2017: 2).

Development education

Sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) have soared following the use of the term ‘alternative facts’ by a Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway, in a public spat about the numbers that attended the presidential inauguration on 20 January (Bradner, 2017).  The inauguration was overshadowed by a mass women’s march against Trump in Washington DC the following day that was supported by ‘sister’ marches in cities across the US and around the world (Smith, 2017). These demonstrations appeared to easily eclipse the crowd that witnessed the inauguration and suggested that alternative facts were simply fiction (Ibid).  In any event, this dispute over numbers told us that the Trump presidency will be characterised by a battle for the truth and development education could and should play a critical part in that engagement.  Rooted in the revolutionary conception of education by the philosopher, practitioner and activist Paulo Freire, development education believes that active citizenship can result in social transformation and the eradication of inequality.  Mostly supported by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government aid programmes, development education equips learners with the skills, values, knowledge and understanding needed to critically analyse problems and devise actions to address them. 

          As Irish Aid suggests development education ‘empowers people to analyse, reflect on and challenge at a local and global level the root causes of global hunger, injustice, inequality and climate change; presenting multiple perspectives on global justice issues’ (2017: 6).  Development education rejects learning by rote and, instead, supports interactive, experiential learning that fosters action toward sustainability, justice and equality.  A key component of the Freirean active learning methodology is the development of critical thinking skills of enquiry and demystification that reveal truth, support analysis and enable action.  Education has a critical role to play in the battle for ideas around how we manage the world’s natural resources, how we treat migrants, how we manage our economy and how we integrate with other cultures and societies.  In his introduction to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Schaull (1970: 16) said:

“Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world”.

Development education is not a neutral process.  It consciously sides with the marginalised, disempowered and dispossessed and argues for more just and equal social relations.  The values, skills, attitudes and understanding underpinning development education need to become more firmly integrated into formal and informal education systems if we are to combat grossly distorted economic inequalities and the kind of poisonous social attitudes that manifested themselves during the EU referendum and presidential election.

Growing activism and resistance

Before despairing of an inexorable drift toward the right in the UK and US that could further undermine already weakened government services and social protections, we should build on the popular markers of resistance already in train.  They include: the mass mobilisation of women that trumped the crowd attending the new president’s inauguration; the throngs of volunteer attorneys and activists that flocked to American airports to offer assistance to refugees and citizens from the seven Muslim-majority countries banned by Trump from entering the US (Petz and Eltman, 2017); and in the UK, the 1.6 million people who signed a petition in support of scrapping or downgrading an invitation extended by British prime-minister Theresa May to Donald Trump for an official state visit (Mason, 2017). With executive orders that have included a temporary ban on refugees and construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border, Trump has simultaneously become a polarising president and galvaniser of resistance on a wider scale than ever could have been envisaged under Hillary Clinton, his Democratic challenger for the presidency. It is Trump’s extremism that potentially encompasses his downfall, particularly his debasing of many of the key values – compassion, social justice, respect – that many Americans hold dear.

          Some commentators have found echoes of Brexit and Trump in the period of economic recession, racism and xenophobia in the 1930s that paved the way to fascism and war (Mason, 2016).  This is probably a warning not to take too literally but does suggest how extreme neoliberal economics can dangerously distort social relations and attitudes in periods of steep decline.  In this context, development education can become a critical point of resistance to the gross social and economic inequality that fed into the divisions manifested in the EU referendum and presidential election.  It can also serve as a push factor, encouraging the kind of activism essential to creating an alternative global paradigm of development that is as just as it is sustainable.



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Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education and editor of Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, a bi-annual, open access journal available at: www.developmenteducationreview.com. He is editor (with Gerard McCann) of From the Local to the Global: Key Issues in Development Studies (Pluto Press, 2015).

McCloskey, S (2017) ‘Brexit, Trump and Development Education’, Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 24, Spring, pp. 159-168