The plenary this morning consisted of two presentations, one from Eun Mee Kim Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies, Ewha Womans University in Seoul and Peter Knorringa from ISS in The Hague.
Professor Kim talked about South Korea as a bridge between developed and developing countries by way of its rapid development (it had a GDP/capita of $81 in 1961) and also as a bridge between DAC and non DAC ODA donors, especially those from Asia.
She argued that the Korean experience brought three things to the development table:
1. Country ownership was vital—the ability to negotiate strongly with donors about what aid should be used for and domestic policies to promote development (e.g. the government argued against donor advice on exchange rate policies)
2. The Korean example of development should not be a poster child for authoritarian regimes all over the world
3. Investment in human capital was key (although it had very low GDP/capita rates in 1961, it had a literacy rate of around 70%) to Korea’s development under authoritarianism and later under democracy
She closed by saying that South Korea is playing a key role on the G20 (it is now the 13th largest economy) in arguing that the focus of the G20 should not be solely on economic development but also on social development.
Professor Knorringa’s talk was about a different type of “new voice”, the private sector. He pointed to three trends in private sector governance that are likely having major implications for development:
1. The rush from companies to sign up to international standards on labour, environment, and safety. He pointed out that there are not necessarily good or bad for development. For example, they could lead to exclusion of the smallest producers and the poorest consumers but they could also facilitate medium size firms in the emerging countries to get into global markets.
2. The consolidation in the retail sector, with European and North American retailers partnering (and buying up) retailers in the BRICS and elsewhere. This is leading to the % of goods purchased from the organised retail sector increasing dramatically. This might lead standards to go out of the window or it might lead to a social global compliance platform where all retailers work towards convergence or, most likely he thought, it would lead to layers of standards, where the new middle classes might be willing to pay small premia for modest levels of environmental protection or labour standard improvements.
3. Companies getting more involved in the development process in order to secure a supply platform (e.g. working with smallholder cocoa producers in West Africa). Companies are increasingly behaving like NGOs, but not with the primary goal of enhancing development.
He argued that we in the development research community have a lot to offer these companies in creating bigger overlaps between commercial and developmental objectives, and that we have a lot to learn from them given that many have been working for longer than we have in the developing world and from a very different perspective.
Both presentations were clear and interesting. I agreed with Prof. Kim’s arguments about the essentialism of the state to want to promote development for its people, but I was less convinced with her argument that the only way to go in the 21st century is via democracy. That is almost like kicking away the ladder (as Ha Joon Chang, a Korean, would say of the rich countries). She was criticised from the floor for sounding too much like the World Bank, but I felt her response (she gave us an insight into the huge fights with the Bank over their narratives around the East Asian miracle and the role of the state) was very strong.
On Prof Knorringa’s talk, he did a good job of communicating why it is important for development researchers to engage with the private sector, but less on the when and how. Despite his arguments, some of the questions from the floor amounted to “we have nothing to teach the private sector about development and they never ask us anyway”. I find this sentiment depressing. Of course there are things each group can learn from each other—we both know the contexts, but from very different angles and this should make for the potential for some productive collaborations. And more and more companies are reaching out to our community. Of course we have to be very careful about greenwash and whitewash and all that, but we cannot just stick our heads in the sand and say it is too difficult. If we really believe commercial interests are to the detriment of development, we have an obligation to engage.
In both cases, I got a sense that the new voices sounded a lot like old voices, albeit with some new things to say. I also was reminded that new voices need open ears if they are to be heard.