Francine Mestrum: Spring is in the air

Development Policy15 Feb 2010Francine Mestrum

It was a real pleasure to read the report of the Scientific Council for Government Policy. In the midst of winter, with snow falling from the sky, it makes you think spring is in the air. Add to this a UN report on the World Social Situation (2010), an IMF Staff Policy Paper looking at the macroeconomic failures of the recent decades, and you feel that after spring comes summer.

What I appreciate most of all in this report is the focus on development instead of poverty reduction and the fact that, in spite of its critical approach to past development policies, it seeks a better way to show solidarity with the rest of the world.

However consensual poverty reduction policies may have been in the recent past, they were not the objective when development cooperation policies started in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, it was economic and later social development which were seen as the most important. And that is how indeed it should be. Poverty reduction can only be the consequence of a successful development policy; one cannot turn it around. Poverty reduction, without well-developed productive capacities and without decent social protection, is impossible. Yet, both things were mostly forgotten by the World Bank and the IMF. They only focused on macroeconomic stability and thought this would automatically lead to growth and poverty reduction. They now admit they were wrong.

Moreover, if we do not succeed in eradicating poverty in our own rich and developed countries, how can we pretend to do so in faraway, underdeveloped nations? There has always been something pathetic about it. The more impossible it is to reach the MDGs, the more moralistic and subjective the discourse becomes. And slowly, structural solidarity makes way for charity.

The second positive element in this report is its stubborn but welcome belief in the possibility of cooperation to contribute to development. Today, it is fashionable to condemn and try to abandon cooperation policies. But indeed, we live in an interdependent world and there is no reason to organize solidarity within our borders and to forget it abroad. There are moral, economic and political reasons to organize in a better structural way the solidarity with people in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

However, I think there are some shortcomings in this report.

The first point is a lack of focus on what poor countries can do themselves. The report rightly says there are no universal theories; we need specific knowledge and expertise. But the first condition for a successful development policy clearly has to be a national development programme. Expertise has to come from within. It is not in western countries that one can decide what good development is and what it is not. Peoples and nations should define their needs and their priorities, as the UN has now decided. Only then can we try to help with our financial and knowledge resources.

A second point is related to globalization. Implicitly, this may be included in the point of coherence and the widening of policies, but I would have liked to see a stronger focus on the fact that we live in one interdependent world where we need global solidarity, in a reciprocal way. Global governance is politically not feasible at the moment, as the authors say, but it surely will have to be prepared for. We will need, in the near future, more global taxes, global social policies, more global democracy and global institutions.

Finally, one point still needs to be developed: climate policies as part of development policies, for North and South. This is not just about taking care of our environment; it concerns the need for another development paradigm in our own countries. Today’s huge inequalities cannot be bridged in a sustainable way if we do not see development as a global concern, that is a need for better policies in the North and in the South.

I am sure the authors are well aware of these three points and I assume they were not developed because of the specific objectives of this report. Maybe they can be taken up in further research.

I would like to thank the authors for a very useful report. I wish Belgium could follow this example. We urgently need a new and better global solidarity. It will not emerge if we cannot critically look at current policies and if we are not determined to pursue policies of sharing.