29 April 2010

The 20th Century Has Left the Building: Time to Reimagine Global Development

This is a short piece I did recently for the New Voices conference at Dochas. Comments welcome.

The 21st century is truly here. Piled on top of the long-unfolding drama of climate change, the food, fuel and financial crises of the past 2 years have been a real wake up call for those of us who care about development beyond our own back yard. We have been awakened from our slumber about what global development is, who “we” are, how we go about pursuing global development and why we are even trying.

What we are trying to achieve? We know that the pursuit of GDP per capita as the prime measure of progress is an easy rather than accurate indicator of what we want. Witness the many instances of economic growth driving things that are not good for us or our planet such as obesity, environmental degradation, volatility and uncertainty in food and fuel prices, the fragility that comes with extreme inequality and, of course, a warming planet. Not all economic growth is bad, but not all is good. We need to measure things we care about. Some steps are being taken, for example, the Commission set up by President Sarkozy for measurement of social progress, but not enough is being done to redefine our measures of success.

But who are “we”? Certainly not just the OECD. New voices are emerging everywhere and are already having an impact--not much will get done on global development issues if China, India, and Brazil are not in agreement. And they can now afford to ignore the rich countries. The West needs to treat these countries as partners rather than subcontractors if agreements on trade, arms, drugs, climate and financial regulation are to be struck. The West also needs to learn from the social change successes in the developing world. The rich countries do not have a monopoly on solutions--many of the most exciting innovations such as cash transfers to help children stay in school, citizen involvement in budgeting, new forms of local government and social enterprise, are being developed in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

There are other voices that need to be heard but they are common to all countries. First, there is the private sector. Caricatures of businesses as “all evil” or “all good” need to be thrown out. We can ignore business as a driver of development, but that would be sticking our head in the sand. Much better to influence, incentivize and, where necessary, regulate the massive resource flows towards more sustainable and equitable development. This means actively working with businesses, to understand the possibilities and the risks. Second, there is the security community. Development, diplomacy and defence are already bracketed together in the fragile contexts within which one third of the world’s poor live. Working with the other two “D”’s to define more favourable space for development is a vital responsibility we have.

But the voices that are easiest to ignore are from those people we purport to help. Lots of development rhetoric is expended on the need to listen to ordinary people living in everyday deprivation. But, in reality, few development organizations have the incentives to really listen to and act on what these voices are saying. No-one will lose their jobs if they do not convene with farmers or brainstorm with health clinic users. Career advancement is simply not dependent on it. Fixing this “broken feedback loop” in development—from those development is supposed to help to those who hold the resources—is the key to improved aid and development policy and practice. Civil society must be supported to make development ineffectiveness inconvenient for the financiers and implementers, and to provide new solutions.

How will these new alliances for global development work? What will they do? At the national level, they will find their own pathways towards development. We now accept that there are no blueprints for development, but we also have a good idea about the ingredients necessary for success: stability, clear rules of the game between the state, entrepreneurs and civil society, and a strong domestic tax base to name a few. The challenge is to bring the innovators and the planners together to find the right recipe for a given place and time. This requires “development diagnostics” – ways of combining knowledge about politics, power and capacity with what is technically possible -- to hash out the priorities and sequencing of actions to make change happen.

At the global level, the alliances have to reimagine global governance. The G20 is a step in the right direction, but it is still ad-hoc and unrepresentative. The UN is too fragmented to wield itself into a more powerful and effective force. Fundamental change in the governance of the World Bank and the IMF still seems elusive. International efforts to combat climate change are at present, ungoverned. Global governance is broken. The costs of not fixing it are potentially catastrophic. If global action to address global problems is to be effective, it requires global governance based on globally constructed knowledge. Much of the knowledge in the world is produced by the rich countries. The production of that knowledge is often rigorous in the sense of being methodologically appropriate. But if you believe, as I do, that the way each of us we constructs knowledge is influenced in part by on our own experiences and values, then knowledge on development generated in one part of the world will always be partial. Like different protagonists in a movie, each of us tends to view the same set of events in different ways. We need to find ways to build knowledge across boundaries and across values.

Finally, what motivates these efforts for global development? The arguments usually fall into two camps—the moral (“we have so much we should spread it around”) and the self-interest (“keeping the bad stuff away from us”). But the biggest negatives for the developing world are now being generated by the rich world—climate uncertainty from greenhouse gases and financial volatility from weak regulation. We now have a responsibility to act, one that is beyond charity. The self-interest motive is also evolving into one of common interest. Common in the sense that many of the world’s problems require global collective action. But also common in the sense that many countries are increasingly experiencing similar challenges: greater urbanization, more chronic disease such as diabetes and hypertension, and how to provide social welfare regimes that spur rather than hinder development. The motivations for global development need to move from charity to responsibility and from self-interest to common interest.

The organization I represent, the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, is taking these challenges seriously. We are exploring these issues in our Reimagining Development initiative. In addition our new strategy will focus on new ways of measuring things that really mark a society’s progress, will help us form new alliances to invigorate development thinking and practice and will push us to look for ways to build knowledge across boundaries to legitimize the evidence needed to power global development. It’s not easy for us and it will not be easy for others. But if the resources put into global development by taxpayers and entrepreneurs the world over are to be effective in driving global development, then we must deal with the challenges of today, not those of yesterday.

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