International resourcefulness now

Development Policy29 Nov 2011Michiel Verweij

While Busan is hosting a high level discussion on aid effectiveness, doubts are mounting on the very concept of development aid itself. Oh yeah.

Aid and trade, the heralds of the Western capitalist market model have been pushing the poverty frontline backwards. Aid sometimes prepared the ground for trade by supporting an enabling environment of security, infrastructures, education, and public sector reforms. Otherwise, development aid offered relief to the vulnerable and the losers. All in all, aid and trade have been rather successful (not perfect) in spreading prosperity over the globe.

From time to time development aid strategies are adapted to a changing environment. This time around new donors will lead to new partnerships, as new poor will lead to new policy. No big deal.

Game changers

However, more fundamental game changers engulf the poverty agenda: financial instability, energy shortages, environmental strain, climate change and public health. These public bads deeply disturb the poverty reduction endeavour. The financial crisis of 2008, for example, pushed millions of people back into poverty. Rising food prices increased food insecurity and led to social unrest in a number of countries. Not to speak about the risk of serious climate variations that will dwarf all other crisis.

“The carrying capacity of planet earth has been stretched to the maximum” is the common message emerging from these trends. If we continue on the same course we will lead to an imminent collision: multiple collisions. Personal observations offer no relieve. Over the past 20 years I had the privilege to work and live in a few countries in Latin America and Africa where I witnessed socio-economic progress but also pressure building up around the use of scarce resources.

I saw water conflicts emerge when farmers started to invest in pumps in the Andean Valleys and farmland being abandoned when water sources dried up possibly due to climate change. I flew through hundreds of kilometres of smoke over large part of the Amazon caused by encroaching slash and burn practices and suffered in cities with unbearable levels of smog and dirt. And my pension scheme has lost considerable value due to the financial crisis.

Defence lines

Instead of one poverty frontline we now have multiple front- or perhaps better said defence lines. These front/defence lines are not only crossing the poor countries. These threats are systemic and diffuse and intersect with people’s lives in the periphery as well as the centre. They structurally disrupt development patterns and can even cause hardship at our own homes in our Western parish.

Should these International bads impacting the poor as well as the rich be part of the Busan agenda?

Yes, because poverty reduction efforts are being undermined. Years of achievements in poverty reduction are wiped out with a food price hike, or any other major disruption in financial, environmental, energy system. So how can we ignore them?

Too big to fail

Yes, because the global public bads carry a message that tells us our collective capacities were not good enough to avoid severe global crisis in the different fields. The development model delivered on certain development indicators but failed on others. Professionals did not structurally anticipate the multiple threats while they emerged. Commoners trusted bankers, scientist, entrepreneurs, businessman, politicians and development workers. People though the professionals knew what they were doing. But they didn’t. The bigger issue of sustainability was not systematically addressed until it became big, until it became too big to fail.

Yes, because the multiple crisis tells us we are interdependent and in need to develop our collective capacities to adapt and restore and avoid new crisis in the future. No ‘high level’ meeting of parties, experts or noble price winners have surprised us with something close to a solution. Not in finance, not in environment, not in food security not in climate change. We still lack that capacity.

So let’s focus on learning and developing comprehensive individual and collective capacities to live up to the global challenges. Look at moral capacity. Adam Smith already new that justice, vice and virtue are vital elements to a well-functioning market system, perhaps more important than an economic model. Look at social (organization, cooperation) and psychological capacity (recognize weakness, resilience, courage) and not to forget technical, productive, managerial and governance capacity for adaptation to change.

Capacity development

South, West, East, North have all capacities to look after our fragile island in the universe. The wisdom of a salt trading pastoralist in Ethiopia can be as inspiring as the wisdom of the crowds in an Indian city.

Let’s hope the Busan goers dedicate a bit of imaginative thinking to capacity development: what it is, how it can be supported and how it can be measured. We talk so much about capacity development as a key requirement for development. Hence, let’s work to give the sometimes vague concept hands and feet. They might want to open the synthesis report of the evaluation of Dutch support to capacity development “Facilitating Resourcefulness”. The study is a first step, an uncertain step in giving insight in how organizational capacities and performance have been improved.

A simple definition of capacity is “the ability to set and achieve goals”. To begin with the first part: where are we going? The floor is ours.