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‘The Experiment of Development’: the source of our progress has become the source of our downfall

As the United Nations celebrates its 75th anniversary amidst a global pandemic, interconnected challenges and existential risks pose the greatest test yet to the future of international development cooperation.

Michael J. Oghia
30 March 2020
Kumbh Mela 2019, India.
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Flickr/Ninana. Some rights reserved.

The social and developmental changes that have occurred over the past 70 years are nothing less than remarkable. Almost every metric of human development – from the percentage of people living in abject poverty and life expectancy, to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and infant mortality rates – has seen a significant improvement during this period even as the global population surged. A major factor in realising these developmental gains should undeniably be attributed to international development cooperation, ranging from scientific exchange to creating better conditions for foreign investment.

Bearing in mind the complex politics surrounding development, the power and wealth differential that often exists between providers (donors) and partners (recipients), and the various interests behind development cooperation, the fact that governments, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), private donors, and development agencies can come together to enact meaningful change should rightly be considered a feat of human ingenuity and collaboration. Added to this is the fact that international development is such a relatively new endeavour. While the act of helping the poor is hardly a modern concept, doing so in such a systematic way civilly (if not contentiously) while involving so many actors and impacting so many peoples across the globe stands as a testament to the power and vibrancy of international development cooperation.

Upon a closer, more critical inspection of how international development cooperation has changed over time, it is necessary to separate the overall gains and achievements such cooperation has produced from how it manifests within development agencies and among delegates in conference rooms. Conducting an independent examination of process (i.e., international development cooperation) and outcomes (e.g., poverty alleviation, disease control, etc.) yields conflicting results, even as international development cooperation has arguably advanced significantly since its inception in the late 1940s and 1950s. The very paradigm(s) behind international development cooperation have also been refined in the ensuing decades, often in a way that is more equitable and inclusive towards partner countries. International development cooperation no longer adheres to the simplistic divides of North-South cooperation, especially when considering the growth of South-South cooperation partnerships, triangular cooperation schemes, and public-private partnerships that leverage globalised economic frameworks and internationally respected norms, rules, laws, and regulations.

As the 2002 Monterrey Consensus and the Four High Level Forums on Aid Effectiveness demonstrate, it is clear that partner countries are increasingly taking a more proactive and self-empowered approach to how they engage in international development cooperation. Furthermore, the 2015 Paris Climate Accords as well as the formulation and adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the subsequent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) underscore just how much international development cooperation has advanced, particularly by becoming more multi-stakeholder as well as juggling myriad interests and ultimately creating a framework that almost every institution is willing to support either in practice or lip service.

Without such advancement, landmark achievements such as but certainly not limited to banning fluorocarbons to protect the ozone layer, halting acid rain, eradicating smallpox, drastically reducing violent interstate conflict, protecting the Arctic and Antarctic, enacting controls on nuclear weapons testing and proliferation, and developing rules and norms that govern cross-border and international activities ranging from air travel to the use of space would simply not have been possible. In this sense, it seems evident that international development cooperation as a process is advancing in a gradual but constructive and inclusive way.

Longterm unsustainability

What I am not convinced of, however, is the sustainability and holistic nature the efforts and outcomes of international development cooperation produce in the long-term. For a key example, look no further than the insidious spectre of climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement was a landmark outcome for international development cooperation, one that elevated climate change back to the top of the global political agenda. Yet, when examining the outcomes, the Paris Agreement is nowhere near as effective as it needs to be, and current climate pledges will not be enough to stop severe warming – particularly when most governments refuse to meaningfully curb fossil fuel production.

Even though reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century is technically possible and some countries are meeting their targets, the world as a whole is not on track to meet the goals set out as emissions continue to rise. Moreover, extreme weather patterns, which climate change is intensifying, are raising the risk of a global food crisis where “multiple ‘breadbaskets’ could fail at the same time.” Added to this is the likelihood that climate change will drive one of the largest refugee crisis in history – a phenomenon whose effects are already being felt across communities in Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and South Asia, which will, according to Brookings, “test the limits of national and global governance as well as international cooperation.”

Thus, while it is encouraging to see that global development mechanisms and processes seem to be evolving to meet ever growing needs and competing interests, the outcomes produced and the pace of change are simply not enough. Climate change, as a global and interconnected existential risk, is one of the most daunting challenges in particular, one that developed economies (mainly in the Global North) have and continue to exacerbate more than developing ones – particularly in places with the highest development levels and per-capita income, such as Scandinavia.

Not only has the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned that climate change “threatens the future of human rights, and risks undoing the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction,” but it is entirely possible that the gains we have made as a species – no doubt due to international development cooperation – may only be relevant and beneficial to one, two, or potentially three generations. This goes well beyond hypothetical forecasting; the efforts to alleviate global poverty provide a case study in why the lack of sustainable outcomes is so problematic for international development cooperation and the very notion of positive social progress itself.

Poverty alleviation as a case study

Ending poverty around the world underpinned the genesis of international development cooperation in the post-World War II era. Today, many of the major international development aid agencies such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) uphold the endeavour to eradicate poverty as a central pillar of their respective missions. Poverty is a relative term that manifests differently from country-to-country and from context-to-context, such as between urban and rural areas or between genders. What is also apparent is that even after more than 70 years of international development cooperation, and billions spent on eradicating poverty, major inequalities persist or continue to worsen especially as it relates to hunger, one of the most poignant indicators of poverty. For example, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “More than 820 million people did not have enough to eat in 2018. Almost all those hungry people live in developing regions. Hunger has [also] been increasing in many countries, in particular in middle-income countries, where economic growth is lagging. For decades, the number of hungry people was in decline, but this is no longer the case.”

“For decades, the number of hungry people was in decline, but this is no longer the case.”

Much of the paradigm(s) underpinning international development cooperation stem from market-based economics, which was effectively ramped up with the spread of neoliberal ideology in the 1980s. This pervasive ideology is one that emphasised economic growth as the dominant metric even as new indexes, such as the Human Development Index (HDI), attempted to broaden the metrics used to gauge the health of society beyond it. What is clear, however, is that this has been a dismal failure – a reality that even the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a bulwark of the neoliberal world order, sheepishly acknowledged in 2016. Moreover, even when a hallmark in international development cannon, the 1987 Brundtland Report, called for greater consideration of how present needs should not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own, governments and companies around the world were downplaying or outright denying the insidiously pernicious impact of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions all for the sake of short-term gains predicated on the fundamentally flawed assumption of theoretically endless growth.

While it is apparent that international development cooperation has helped lift billions out of poverty in the impressively short time span of around 70 years, it has failed to address the real causes of poverty and the increasing inequalities that exist globally. One of the key reasons for this is not just the obsession with economic growth that permeates all aspects of globalisation, but also the lack of holistic understanding of what perpetuates poverty. As Dutch historian Rutger Bregman has repeatedly decried of the modern economic system, “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash.” In other words, the lack of access to reliable income or subsistence that can provide over the long-term will ultimately continue the cycle of poverty where someone who is born impoverished will stay that way or someone who is not impoverished will become so. While the solution to poverty traps may seem self-evident – access to employment and the income it provides, hence why economic growth is such an appealing metric – that radically undermines one of the basic tenets of this position: the fact that if the cost of living is increasingly difficult to meet, then a family or individual will still not have the ability to thrive or provide for themselves in a sustainable way even with a consistent income.

“Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash.”

Consequently, when we speak about addressing development cooperation in a more holistic manner, it does not merely seek to describe common criticisms and shortcomings of development aid, ranging from the sheer waste of resources due to the unnecessary duplication of efforts, the propensity for dependency, or elite capture of foreign aid, to the lack of cultural awareness from Northern donors or robust understanding of the needs of target communities. Instead, a holistic approach to development cooperation refers to embedding a deep understanding of and consideration for the intricate interconnectivity of outcomes sought, genuine interest in systematically addressing the underlying structural problems that may subvert those outcomes, and what the lack of significant long-term action in one area or completely focusing on metrics in another may well undermine all developmental efforts entirely.

In the case of poverty, for instance, this holistic approach could manifest as addressing structural and policy failings that have led to a current environment where, for instance, just eight men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world. Such an environment has also facilitated a reality where the world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people, and institutions are effectively held hostage by the interests of the ultra-wealthy where even a short-term evisceration of wealth (such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic or in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis) is compensated for by exploiting what Naomi Klein poignantly termed disaster capitalism via the shock doctrine, which systematically deepens inequality while enriching political and economic elites.

Such structural failings include the inextricable link between the climate crisis and socio-economic inequality, specifically the social and environmental interconnections among climate risks, the inequality that manifests between countries, and the obscene disconnect between those most responsible for climate change and those most affected by it – the world’s richest 10% are responsible for half of all historical GHG emissions, while the poorest half of the world’s population is only responsible for 14% of global emissions

Such structural failings include the obscene disconnect between those most responsible for climate change and those most affected by it.

This fact demonstrates, among other things, the deficiency of effective market regulatory mechanisms, but it also underscores how governments around the world as well as international institutions, notably the World Bank, have failed to adequately address corruption, exploitation, and poor governance – all of which pose a significant threat to free and democratic systems in particular. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when not doing so is broadly beneficial to those in power. Yet, as research by New America and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlighted, the most important target within the framework of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is promoting rule of law and access to justice (SDG 16). By improving rule of law and access to justice, a country essentially paves the way for it to address myriad other developmental challenges.

How do we move forward?

Devoting more resources to improving systemic problems is only one part of the solution, however. Provider countries in particular should address their own shortcomings in order to set a better example and practice what they preach. This includes taking genuine steps to reduce corruption, enhance transparency, accountability, and good governance, champion education for all, strengthen democratic institutions, invest in prepared and responsive public health systems, promote human rights, protect civic spaces, uphold the rule of law, close taxation loopholes, combat money laundering and financial offshoring, enact (and enforce) more robust market regulatory mechanisms, curtail funding for economic development both at home and abroad that incentivises extraction and subsidizes environmental degradation, fully commit to the Voluntary National Review (VNR) process on SDG implementation, which should include reporting on international public finance and trade, and especially address structurally reinforced wealth and racial inequality and the ensuing long-term legacies of poverty they foster.

Concurrently, partner countries should also prioritise these areas, move away from the emphasis on growth as the sole metric of developmental progress, and recognise that improvements in well-being benefit everyone, especially when investing in improving the lives of women and girls. As Noble Laureates Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo stressed: “A developing country [must] attempt to raise living standards with the resources it already has: investing in education and healthcare, improving the functioning of the courts and banks, and building better roads and more liveable cities. The same logic holds for policymakers in rich countries, who should invest directly in raising living standards in poorer countries. In the absence of a magic potion for development, the best way to profoundly transform millions of lives is not to try in vain to boost growth. It is to focus squarely on the thing that growth is supposed to improve: the well-being of the poor.”

“The best way to profoundly transform millions of lives is not to try in vain to boost growth. It is to focus squarely on the thing that growth is supposed to improve: the well-being of the poor.”

With the immense challenges of the twenty-first century ahead and the particular impact such challenges will have on poverty, it is simply imperative that international development cooperation focuses on addressing structural problems, strengthening governance, and promoting institutional, knowledge-sharing and cross-border partnership through science diplomacy. Even when considering the possible advances in technology to come, technology alone cannot be seen as a panacea for development – and it is surely not our saviour.

Collaboration and meaningful systemic transformation is our only way forward. Such changes to governance and polity may necessitate the creation of a more coherent, practical, and incentive-based framework for cross-sectoral and multi-stakeholder international cooperation, one that combines efforts across development assistance, economic and trade policies, public health, and greater support for transparency and accountability in the foundational spirit underpinning development: solidarity, collective advancement, and common responsibility.

Achieving such an outcome is increasingly difficult, however, and often stems from a fundamental disagreement about what the future should look like and for whom. When international efforts to address global challenges like climate change not only end in failure, kicking the can of difficult decision-making down the proverbial road to disaster, but negotiators even struggle to include criticism of fossil fuels and their producers – or worse, mentioning climate change altogether – it facilitates a toxic atmosphere of frustration and despair that subverts both progress and solidarity. This conflict not only harms the overall development outcomes produced, but also wastes valuable time to correct urgent problems, collectively invest in innovative solutions, and mobilise effective and collaborative responses. Compounding this predicament is the perfect storm of waning political will, rising nationalism, and faltering support for multilateralism at a time when radical changes to mitigate climate change have never been more dire or paramount.

Compounding this predicament is the perfect storm of waning political will, rising nationalism, and faltering support for multilateralism.

Similarly to mitigating climate change, development actors, diplomats, and policymakers should also approach the endeavour to eradicate poverty as a holistic, multi-generational effort, inherently interconnected with other global challenges, and one that does not exist on a linear (or inevitable) time frame. This means abandoning the, perhaps sacrosanct, notion that just because an individual, family, or community were lifted out of poverty means that they will exist in a life of prosperity indefinitely. Until governments and societies at large implement this mindset, approach development holistically and in a truly sustainable manner, and ultimately integrate this into the core of their efforts, I fear that, unfortunately, we may one day return to where we started more than 70 years ago.

One step forward, two steps back

The impact of inaction and the seemingly perpetual dragging of our feet could already prove consequential, however. British academic and journalist Nafeez Ahmed argues that Brexit and the global rise of nationalist, populist, and far-right movements likely indicate that this process of backtracking may well be under way, one that is inextricably linked to how the entire global economy depends on cheap energy flows and exploitation to promote growth. Moreover, UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report soberingly and poignantly underscored the worsening state of inequality around the world and the grim picture that such inequalities paint for the future: “In every country many people have little prospect for a better future. Lacking hope, purpose, or dignity, they watch from society’s sidelines as they see others pull ahead to ever greater prosperity. Worldwide many have escaped extreme poverty, but even more have neither the opportunities nor the resources to control their lives. Far too often gender, ethnicity, or parents’ wealth still determines a person’s place in society.”

What is among the most frustrating implications of the UNDP’s findings is that the state of inequalities around the world are not improving. The UN sounded the alarm 15 years ago in its first World Social Report, warning that growing inequality could jeopardise the achievement of internationally agreed development goals. This is a major reason why the SDGs include Goal 16 to reduce inequalities. Yet, the 2020 World Social Report reported that 70% of the world's population now live in nations where inequality has increased since the 1970s, which is one of the most demonstrable reasons why University of New South Wales economist and former UN Economic and Social Commissioner for Asia and the Pacific Division director, Anis Chowdhury, recently declared that economic inequality is yet another existential crisis facing humanity. Herein lies the problem: time and time again, warning bells go off, a report is issued, a conference is held, but the status quo either remains the same or seemingly deteriorates.

Time and time again, warning bells go off, a report is issued, a conference is held, but the status quo either remains the same or seemingly deteriorates.

Perhaps none of this should be surprising, however, for such contradictions are not a bug in our current economic, industrial, and political systems, but a fundamental feature – an unfortunate circumstance of the prominence of extraction capitalism. Founding editor of The Correspondent, Rob Wijnberg, summed up our current predicament well, writing: “Our world is better off now than at any point in human history, but at the same time things have never been worse. It’s a contradiction that presents us with a seemingly unresolvable conundrum: the source of our progress has become the source of our downfall. Things are too good for us to change it all, yet too bad for us to leave anything as it is. This is the great paradox of modern times.”

The reality of this paradox is testament to the ultimate failure of international development cooperation: the lack of holistic, long-term strategy to cultivate more equal, progressive, and sustainable societies. While I concede that the entire genesis of the MDGs and later, the SDGs, were formulated largely to address this lack of robust strategy – and created a valuable framework with ambitious targets to draw upon – the overall outcomes produced so far simply have not been enough to safeguard a sustainable future.

Of course, I do not mean to disparage or demean the thousands of individuals who are working tirelessly to improve the lives of the most marginalised, destitute, and vulnerable around the world, nor do I know what it is like to be lifted out of poverty or become a refugee fleeing a war zone. Therefore, I also recognise the inherent limitations of my arguments and rationale, particularly that it is easy to criticise from my warm flat in Europe. As I wrote in 2016, “The fact that it is much more difficult for someone to ponder the universe when their stomach is empty is self-evident. The same is true in environments when women and girls must travel for two hours one-way to collect water (that is often contaminated), or when individuals in positions of power siphon aid money that is meant to educate children or provide healthcare to communities.”

What I meant then, which is also apparent now, is that we face a fundamental dilemma: we have to improve the present if we want to ensure a better future, but what if by improving the present we are also endangering the future beyond which it can be repaired? Wallace Broecker, the late, U.S. National Medal of Science-winning geochemist who initiated critical research into the history of Earth’s climate and humans’ influence upon it, warned of the intrinsic Catch-22 that exemplifies our current predicament, which strikes at the heart of this very question. Broecker understandably opined during a 2008 interview that “we can[not] destine the poor people on the planet to remain poor, just so we cannot have [carbon dioxide] build up in the atmosphere. Coal is going to get burned and there is not anything we can do about it. It is abundant, it could run the world for 200 to 300 years, and it’s cheap, so how are you going to stop people from using it?”

The tragic irony is that climate change fuelled by this same coal easily constitutes the most considerable challenge to those already left behind by growing inequality given the ever increasing likelihood that it will have devastating consequences for the poor, critically undermine the global economy, intensify violent conflict, adversely impact health and well-being, continue to drive forced migration, and pull vast numbers into poverty or back into poverty. We are already witnessing the effects of a global pandemic on the most vulnerable in advanced economies, just imagine how much worse it will be when the ever-worsening impacts of climate change begin to wreak havoc on our already overburdened and underprepared institutions, economies, and political systems.

We are already witnessing the effects of a global pandemic on the most vulnerable in advanced economies, just imagine how much worse it will be when the ever-worsening impacts of climate change begin to wreak havoc.

International development cooperation as a vehicle for improving lives, alleviating poverty, catalysing collaboration, and preserving the environment undoubtedly has an incredibly important role to play in ensuring we transcend the inevitable consequences of the status quo, but not without meaningful and lasting commitments to improve long-term outcomes and the institutional support needed to realise them. It seems that only time will tell if our current development paradigm will be able to cement itself as the precedent moving forward or simply become relegated as a brief historical anomaly. After all, what is the point of working to eradicate poverty for one generation if climate change, economic collapse, debilitating inequality, the next pandemic (or the current one), and political instability all contribute to guaranteeing destitution, the dissolution of international cooperation, and an uninhabitable planet for the next? It is our responsibility, our duty, to proactively endeavour – in legislatures, in boardrooms, in our own communities – to do all we can to prevent this.

The clock is ticking and the risk of inaction is existential; do we want to be the face that people point to when our children ask a fateful question: “Who destroyed the world?”

Acknowledgements: I extend my heartfelt gratitude to Dominique Hempel Rodas, Sarah E. Mallat, and Andrea Ćeran for their invaluable feedback and constructive critiques of this essay.

Note: All views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author, and are neither reflective of nor endorsed by his employer.

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