Friday, 25 April 2014

Development beyond aid? Globalising mutual learning in a multi-polar world

I start my new role as Director of IDS at a time when development and development studies landscapes are shifting fast. In my new blog, I hope to offer some personal reflections on this ‘transforming development’, in all its variety.

My first reflection, is that we should stop thinking of major development challenges as ‘north-south’ matters. The traditional framework of official development assistance and aid flows from OECD countries to the ‘global south’ remains vital to channel money and resources to some of the most vulnerable people and places. That aid flows have held up in countries like the UK even amidst the austerity cuts of the last few years is to be applauded. DFID now focuses its aid on just 26 of what are deemed the lowest income, most fragile states. And perhaps this is right, if we are talking simply about ‘bangs for poverty reduction bucks.’ But in a multi-polar world, development policy and co-operation, and the ways we think about it, have to be much more than this. Several events over the last month have driven this home.

Sustainable Development Goals – for everyone

First, late March saw the announcement of the focal areas for the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals, the framework agreed in principle at the Rio+20 conference in 2012 and core to the world’s post-2015 development agenda. The 19 foci cover economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainability (pdf). Everything from food, health, urbanisation and climate change to governance, poverty and inequality. Much honing will be needed to turn these into targets and indicators by the end of this year. Most strikingly, these areas and goals are universal. They are supposed to apply to low, middle and high income countries alike. As one focus areas states, this is an agenda of mutual responsibility and commitment.

Environmental, food and financial challenges and threats affect us all, in a deeply interconnected world. Poverty and inequality are problems everywhere – not just in low income countries but also in rapidly growing rising powers and in declining industrial ones. All countries must ‘get their houses in order’ – in policy areas like environment, food, energy, trade and taxation – to build sustainable and equitable pathways, locally, nationally and globally.

This, I believe, is absolutely the right message. But it is a very different one from the predecessor Millennium Development Goals, with their narrower focus on targeting aid towards poverty reduction in the global south. And it challenges governments not to parcel ‘development’ off into overseas aid focused ministries and departments, but to think and act in much more joined-up ways. As recent discussions in the UK exemplify – including around the ongoing OECD DAC review of UK development co-operation, and at the panel discussion that marked the departure of my predecessor, Lawrence Haddad  – these are live issues.

Policy coherence across sectors and between home and abroad is the new name of the global development game. But this must be coupled with ‘analytical coherence’ in the ways we think about development, inequality and sustainability. These are not matters for ‘distant others’, to be addressed (just) through aid: they affect us all, wherever and whoever we are.

BRICS and the rising powers

Secondly, the Global Partnership first High Level Meeting in Mexico last week chose South – South cooperation as one of its key themes. As Alex Shankland who attended the meeting on behalf of the IDS Rising Powers Programme pointed out in the Guardian, It is crucial that donors do not simply treat the development agenda as business as usual.

Li Xiaoyun and Richard Carey, members of the Rising Powers Programme Advisory Council, pointed out in a recent paper the rise to political and economic prominence of the so-called BRICS countries is part of a broader transformation in global governance with major implications for international development.
Conventional aid agendas evolved as part of the system created after the Second World War, in which European and United States’ leadership and hegemony were a vital element. We are now in a far more polycentric and multi-polar world, evolving rapidly but also uncertainly as new countries rise and older powers submerge.

One feature of this new era has been a rapid growth in south-south development co-operation, illustrated for instance in financial flows and technical assistance from China and Brazil to African countries. The contrasts with traditional, OECD-led development assistance –more focused on technical services and infrastructure, and less overt involvement in social and political issues and conditionalities - are stark.  This raises interesting questions about whether new development paradigms may be afoot.

But the implications of a multi-polar world run deeper, suggesting a vital agenda of mutual learning that connects with the challenge of re-thinking development in more global, universal terms.

At the recent BRICS Academic Forum in Brazil, ahead of the 6th BRICS Summit this summer, leading thinkers and practitioners from government, civil society and academic institutions shared ideas and experiences around how to tackle challenges of poverty, inequality and sustainability. The depth and intensity of discussions drove home how far these countries have become sources of vital policy innovation, whether in Brazil’s famed ‘Bolsa familia’ social welfare provisions, or China’s recent innovations in low-carbon energy. They illustrated the scope for learning and sharing not just between these rising powers and low income countries, but also with the older industrial powers too. What might the UK, for instance, learn from Brazil’s citizen engagement in inclusive health delivery systems, in tackling its own health inequalities?

Transforming Development – through multi-partner partnerships

There is huge scope for multi-partner partnerships – between institutions in BRICS countries, OECD countries and those in so-far less ‘risen’ powers of Africa, Asia and Latin America. These will need to be ‘doing’ partnerships – sharing and combining capacities, influence and resources to bring about sustainable and equitable change, and tackle shared challenges.

Crucially, they also need to be genuine learning partnerships, putting aside the historical baggage that once assumed good development ideas, expertise and technologies travelled from north to south. As Rosalind Eyben has pointed out, this requires a transformation in relationships, attitudes and behaviour. From the arrogance and superiority sometimes associated with post-colonial aid, to a spirit of humility, openness, mutual appreciation and willingness to be open to critique.

Working towards these cultural transformations is perhaps the biggest challenge of all in transforming development and aid into a new era of global development partnership.

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