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Utenriksdept via Compfight: Heikki Holmås, Norway´s Minister of International Developmen

The Fundamental Things Apply

David Sogge | 10 May 2013

Norway’s recent international cooperation white paper, Sharing for Prosperity, seems stubbornly non-conformist. For it recommits Norway to some fundamental, if today unfashionable, purposes: for low-income lands, pursuit of growth-with-redistribution and national financial self-reliance; for donor countries, responsibilities to abolish global rules that drain resources from poor to rich, thus fostering conflict and putting everyone’s environment at risk.

Donor enchantment with the for-profit sector, and their open pursuit of mercantile self-interest as ‘cooperation’, are today more visible than ever, as The Broker has from time to time observed [ Ellen Lammers ‘Reshuffling Power’ Feb/March 2011]. The intermingling of high and low motives, of compassion and calculation, mercy and mammon, are nicely captured in titles like Fighting Poverty: A Business Opportunity. Mercantilism has always been the shadow side of the aid industry, although in the 1970s it was put in question by the ‘like-minded’ donors, among whom was the Netherlands. But that informal grouping dissolved long ago, as most members, even in Scandinavia, chose to ‘go with the flow’. 

Given this drift, Norway’s recent international cooperation white paper, Sharing for Prosperity, seems stubbornly non-conformist. For it recommits Norway to some fundamental, if today unfashionable, purposes: for low-income lands, pursuit of growth-with-redistribution and national financial self-reliance; for donor countries, responsibilities to abolish global rules that drain resources from poor to rich, thus fostering conflict and putting everyone’s environment at risk. 

Norway adopted this unorthodox stance after revisiting and rethinking the fundamental drivers of mal-development and destructive conflict. These include:

  • inequalities of wealth and life-chances (also as influence by gender);
  • extractive economies that fail to generate decent jobs;
  • exclusionary, non-transparent politics that fail to respond fairly to citizens;
  • extractive industrial policies that fail to curb environmental damage; and
  • extractive global systems that promote illicit outflows and predatory practices by multinationals.

Their analysis is heterodox, but the Norwegians are not saying that obstacles to private investment and ease-of-doing-business indexes don’t matter. Rather, and contrary to neoliberal orthodoxies, they see such problems as secondary. The principal problems stem from skewed relations of power. 

Sharing for Prosperity is hardly a bolt from the blue. Indeed it includes many things already on Norway’s cooperation agenda. For example, for more than a decade Norway has helped hydrocarbon exporters defend themselves against global corporations, and indeed how to renegotiate unfair agreements with those powerful outsiders. In 2005 that work crystallized in the ‘Oil for Development Programme’, which aims to turn around the ‘resource curse’ by providing know-how to producer country authorities, and active citizens, in their dealings with hydrocarbon industry firms. On the front of global public goods and tax justice, Norway began supporting research and policy activism for a number of years. In 2008 the government launched an investigation into tax havens and in 2011 set up a major programme to strengthen poor country tax systems and to keep the pressure on tax havens at international levels. Norwegian backing helps explain the forward march of the tax justice movement today. 

Redistribution gets a new accent in Norway’s new cooperation policy. It intends to promote greater equity in income and life-chances through fairer taxation, job creation (linked with clean energy generation, a Norwegian specialty) and systems of social protection. Alluding to the ‘Nordic model’, Sharing for Prosperity casts redistribution as sensible and responsible; once it’s up and running, it is something worth defending. (Domestically, whether they vote left or vote right, Norwegians consistently favour fair redistribution.) Contrast such attitudes with those at leadership levels in austerity Europe, where today unelected policy chieftains in Frankfurt and Brussels show nothing but contempt for fairness, aiming to reduce if not dismantle public welfare systems and ignoring catastrophic unemployment. 

Norway is of course no socialist People’s Republic. Norwegian business interests loom large in public policy. Government subsidies and tax breaks abound. Recent research shows that over the long term, Norway gains about three dollars in export earnings for every dollar equivalent it spends as foreign aid –- the best mercantile performance of any donor country. Some Norwegian embassies (such as in Angola) operate mainly as lubricators of commercial relations. The government encourages public-private partnerships, although where many development-relevant Norwegian companies are state-supervised or state-owned, the term public-public partnerships may be the more accurate term. 

Nevertheless, Norway refuses to subordinate its cooperation policies to its mercantile, export-promotion strategies. Least of all does it claim that fighting poverty and inequality are tasks better left to private interests. That kind of nonsense would not fool anybody. Rather, Norway tries to keep its commercial and developmental/redistributive purposes in separate spheres, and to evaluate their effects accordingly. Given the often highly conventional uses of Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund -– investments whose contribution to greater world equity are open to question – issues of overall policy coherence are far from being resolved. 

Norway’s cooperation policy stems from a government led by the Arbeiderpartiet, a social democratic party. That is a sister party to labour parties today in government in France, Italy and the Netherlands, in which residual social democratic fundamentals are often hard to detect. Whether or not the Arbeiderpartiet continues to lead Norway’s government, cross-party adherence to the ‘Nordic model’ holds the promise of an extended life for Sharing for Prosperity. Call them old-fashioned, but for Norwegians some fundamental social-democratic things continue to apply.

Photo credit main picture: Utenriksdept via Compfight: Heikki Holmås, Norway´s Minister of International Developmen