Back to globalism, starting at home

Development Policy06 Feb 2012Willemijn Verkoren

The criticism and questions facing INGOs are major. Michael Edwards’ description of the gap between today’s ‘thick’ problems and INGOs’ increasingly ‘thin’ solutions is spot on.

The criticism and questions facing INGOs are major. Michael Edwards’ description of the gap between today’s ‘thick’ problems and INGOs’ increasingly ‘thin’ solutions is spot on. Others draw attention to the way in which INGOs seem to miss the boat in responding to today’s challenges, whilst bloggers and Occupiers take the foreground. This discussion takes place against the background of a longer-ranging debate, as INGOs have been struggling to respond to difficult questions about their legitimacy, as well as growing doubt about the extent to which aid really contributes to development.

In this contribution, I suggest that INGOs should consider changing their role from giving aid ‘over there’ to fighting the roots of global injustice closer to home. In some ways this would represent a return. A return from aid to solidarity. And also, at a more fundamental level, a return from blaming ‘them’ to blaming ‘all of us’. The ‘blaming them’ perspective is exemplified by currently popular explanations such as ‘failing states’ and ‘bad governance’ as reasons why countries remain ‘trapped’ in poverty. The ‘blaming all of us’ perspective, instead, rediscovers the global systems view.

But first, a few words about legitimacy. How legitimate NGOs are is an age-old question. It has been approached from many angles, such as the extent to which they are democratically governed. But more important in the current debate is the question of the legitimacy of development intervention itself. Of ‘us’ going ‘over there’ in order to help ‘them’. This has always felt slightly uncomfortable, after all. And it raises complicated questions like, who decides how people ‘over there’ should live? What models are we promoting? ‘Development’ towards what? As Michael Edwards notes, the Western example is losing its appeal – not only because of the problems the West itself is facing, but also due to the rise of alternative models like the Chinese.

One way in which INGOs have dealt with the legitimacy issue is by working with (or through) partner organisations in developing countries. Unfortunately, the NGO industry this has created in developing countries has raised new questions about legitimacy. Often, groups that have ‘local’ legitimacy (i.e. local constituencies, support, political clout) are not the same ones as those that possess ‘international’ legitimacy (i.e. they live up to standards of human rights, inclusiveness, and accountability). INGOs are of course aware of these dilemmas and try to deal with them each in their own way. Some have radically, and bravely, changed the way they work. ‘Ownership’ of local people is the aim. But INGOs cannot shed their normative agendas, for this would be losing their raison d’etre altogether. In addition, whatever the modality of the partnership, the INGOs remain the ones with the sack of money and its unavoidable strings attached.

Legitimacy can also be gained by producing results. Unfortunately, however, doubts about the efficiency and effectiveness of development aid have grown in the past decade. After all, despite sixty years of assistance and solidarity, poverty and injustice are still here. Success stories of development (countries like India, China, the Asian Tigers, and to a lesser extent African countries such as Botswana, Egypt and Mozambique) exist, but precisely in those cases the role of aid has been limited. And despite these successes, global welfare is not increasing. Although the number of people living under the poverty line declined until recently (mainly thanks to progress made in Asia), this trend was reversed by the global economic crisis. Meanwhile, global inequality has continued to grow. The measure of positive change that aid can accomplish is thus limited. But there is more: aid can even have negative consequences. Aid dependency can form an impediment to private initiative, growth and even democratisation. And unfortunately, as we all know, it can also end up in the wrong hands.

Aid workers counter that it is unrealistic to expect that aid alone can bring an end to poverty and injustice. That progress has been made on a micro scale. That this progress cannot always be measured. And that development is a learning process, constantly improving practice. All true. But the main point is this: aid intervention needs to be seen in the right proportion. At best, it is only a small factor in enlarging welfare in poor countries. That the world has not gotten any more equal cannot be blamed on ineffective aid alone. There is much more going on: obstacles to change and development are embedded in the global system. A structural reform of this system is needed in order to bring global justice closer to becoming a reality.

This brings us to the global perspective. In the 1970s, dependency theory and world systems theory were commonplace in the study of international relations and development. These theories drew attention to the interrelation between the welfare of the ‘core’ and poverty in the ‘periphery’. Many of their elements remain equally true today. The level of consumption that predominates in the West is only possible because other parts of the world consume much less; as Edwards notes, spreading the consumption patterns of the rich world would be unsustainable.

However, the global interdependency thinking of the seventies has disappeared into the margins. In development, it has been replaced by a conceptual disconnect between ‘here’ and ‘there’. The aim today is not to change the global system, but to ‘develop’ ‘underdeveloped’ countries to become ‘developed’ — like us. Another change since the 1970s is the move away from solidarity work by many NGOs, toward giving aid. As has been widely noted, NGOs have become less political, and they increasingly view poverty as a technical problem. Although recent times have seen a new emphasis on the state, this emphasis is not so much on politics (let alone global politics) as on institutions. And the disconnect between here and there has only deepened: problems of poverty and injustice today are blamed on ‘bad’ governments of ‘failing’ states – over there.

Not that the global justice agenda has been forgotten. But it has not been helped by NGOs’ emphasis on ‘technical’ interventions and their shying away from politics. The global justice agenda today is fragmented and lacks vision. With regard to ‘familiar’ issues like unfair international trade policy, pharmaceutical patents on life-saving medicines, arms trade, neoliberal policies promoted by the international financial institutions, or unequal representation in institutions of global governance, there is a sense of fatigue. Current circumstances, however, may provide the global justice agenda with new ammunition. The financial and climate crises have led to calls to rethink the way we organise our economy. Bold new ideas have come up in the sphere of global governance, such as a radical democratisation of the UN, perhaps to be paid for through a global tax on financial transactions. These are of course dreams, but the point is that the global justice agenda needs a new impulse. Currently this impulse is not coming from INGOs. But if they were to join forces, who knows what they could achieve.

This work can start close to home. A lot of work is to be done to promote globalism and to draw attention to the ways in which trade and other policies create disadvantages for developing countries. Current Occupy-style critiques of neoliberalist capitalism may be built upon. But there is more. Consider for example migration policy. In a world that has the free movement of goods, services and capital high on its agenda, throwing up walls to prevent a truly global labour market is an anomaly. From a development perspective, migration and diaspora policy should receive much more attention. The remittances migrants send home are higher than all development funds combined. And migrants do not only send money home, but also newly gained knowledge.

Another example; if we want to contribute to peace in war-torn countries, we may start with the weapons transports through Schiphol airport and the port of Rotterdam. The Netherlands has long been in the top-10 of arms exporting countries. That export is facilitated by export credit insurance for companies exporting to developing countries (including Nigeria and Iraq), which is often used for military exports. The Dutch government’s practice of re-insuring these policies makes the export of weapons to poor countries a low-risk and thereby attractive business endeavour.

Out of habit and institutional self-interest, INGOs do not sufficiently look beyond the traditional framework of development aid. But a future oriented civil society should pay more attention to global justice by making connections between national and global issues. NGOs could also lobby more actively for reforms in global governance or a global financial transaction tax. By joining forces, with each other and particularly also with the new kids on the block – the online movements and the Occupiers – perhaps they can reinvent themselves. This would help them to solve the legitimacy dilemma and to shed the uncomfortable charity cloak once and for all. For global justice, starting close to home.


This contribution draws inspiration from earlier work by the author together with Henk van Houtum, Research professor geopolitics University Bergamo en Associate professor political geography Radboud University Nijmegen. See W. Verkoren and H. van Houtum, 2011, “Liever gelijk behandeld dan geholpen”, in J. Hazenberg, F. Tabarki en R. van Tilburg (eds.), Dappere nieuwe wereld: 21 jonge denkers over de toekomst van Nederland. Amsterdam: Van Gennep, pp. 149-160.