A new global partnership?

Development Policy14 Jun 2013Shirin Rai

The High-Level Panel (HLP) on the post-2015 development agenda has produced a comprehensive document that outlines clearly but unimaginatively the path that the UN and its agencies should take in addressing issues of development. Yet, the report does not specify how a new development agenda will be effectively enforceable at the national and global level. 

The five principles that the report puts forward repeat much of what has been written in the context of the first MDGs, but of course take into account the specific developments in the economic and political landscape that have emerged from the economic crisis. The report is aspirational in its call for solidarity in times of neoliberal social collapse and is optimistic in its vision of an inclusive growth agenda in the face of clear evidence of growing inequalities across the world, both between and within countries. One area that it correctly emphasizes is the need for fear from violence and conflict as a prerequisite for building peaceful and prosperous societies. This was acknowledged in the early debates on development in the 1970s – political violence, itself symptomatic of economic and political inequalities, destabilizes both polities and markets and results in disinvestment, unemployment and a general malaise that further contributes to increased violence. Methodologically, the Panel seems to have taken its cue from listening to the ‘voices of the people’ – reflecting “the concerns of people living in poverty, whose voices often go unheard or unheeded” (p.1-2) – which include businesses, farmers and women and the inevitable ‘civil society organizations’ (5000 of them), to reach their conclusions.

The rhetoric of inclusivity and the gaps of analysis in this report are worth noting. There is an insistence on inclusion, but no mention of inequality. There is a celebration of reducing the number of people living below the poverty line, but no reference to the emerging challenges that the poorest face in the context of rapid liberalization and the global economic crisis. There is reference to the role that business wishes to play in providing basic services, without reflection on the erosion of basic services for those who cannot afford to pay them as these services are being privatized. There is reference to women’s desire to own land and to be represented in political institutions, without a review of the status that unpaid domestic work continues to hold – economically and discursively – within UN agencies and therefore within both rich and poor societies. And there is concern for the rights of the disabled, but little regard for the erosion of services to the disabled as the economic crisis leads to restructuring of social services and welfare regimes.

All this is to be delivered in a global partnership. As already stated during the Panel’s meeting in Bali: “We agreed on the need for a renewed Global Partnership that enables a transformative, people-centred and planet-sensitive development agenda which is realized through the equal partnership of all stakeholders. Such partnership should be based on the principles of equity, sustainability, solidarity, respect for humanity, and shared responsibilities in accordance with respective capabilities.” The HLP seems to endorse the crisis-induced shift from aid to trade as evidence of this global partnership (p.10). However, the terms of trade between the North and the South, the global businesses and the supply chains, and the well-organized trade blocs and individual poor nations are overlooked. The emphasis, rather, is on ‘growth’, deregulation and business investment with a strong rhetoric on sustainable consumption and production (p. 9), without much understanding of the internal tensions between the two.

How do we reshape consumption and production? How do we regulate markets to do so? These are not the questions that trouble the HLP much. The actors in this global partnership include the usual suspects of international development – from national governments to philanthropists – without a relational analysis that places these actors in varied positions in the global social landscape. Banal and predictable aspirations ensue as a result (p. 11) – “People must be central to a new global partnership.” (p. 12). At the same time, the global partnership dissolves into nothingness – “The Panel believes that most of the money to finance sustainable development will come from domestic sources” (p. 12). Finally, philosophically, the Panel intervenes to suggest the place of information and consensus in development – information to citizens is emphasized without any reference to how corporations are gathering, analyzing and using information about citizens. The report advocates consensus-based indicators, without reflecting on how a consensus might hide powerful interests that obfuscate the costs of development to the environment (by not including this in calculating GDP within the UNSNA for example). And so it goes on.

In conclusion, this report chooses not to address the underlying power dynamics (between countries, between business and people, between the environment and the economy, between trade and vulnerability) that might undermine the effectiveness and outcomes of this new global partnership. The how? question in development is addressed only to facilitate the expansion of existing modes of production and exchange. This report does little to further a radical shift in our thinking on development.