Maarten Brouwer: More ambition? Yes indeed, but based on more penetrative analysis

Development Policy01 Mar 2010Maarten Brouwer

This is a personal contribution of the author.

There has been much praise for the report by the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR): it is accessibly written and offers a sound analysis, a good historical overview, and radical recommendations. Against the background of an exceptionally low level of public discussion about development cooperation in recent years, the report, Less Pretension, More Ambition, is indeed very welcome. It invites high-quality debate and that is something development cooperation deserves. Development cooperation is one of the cornerstones of the international relations that the Netherlands upholds and is keen to uphold. It is an expression of the nuanced, diverse, broad and measured position held by the Netherlands in the world. The WRR makes this very clear in its report by referring to development cooperation as essential, by provokingly using the term ‘enlightened self-interest’, in which solidarity, stewardship and self interest all have a place, and by explicitly positioning development cooperation within the global framework of worldwide developments, public services and generation-transcending interests. The report is definitely not the last word on how Dutch development cooperation should look in the future. It is more of a springboard for the very necessary debate on the Netherlands’ role in the world. The report throws up questions that require further discussion. Questions, for example, about the coherence between analysis and advising. Questions about the completeness of the analysis and choices they make.

The WRR’s choice for a fundamentally different development policy is central to the report. It represents a break with ‘historically evolved mantras’. The Council claims to have made that fundamental break by no longer seeing poverty reduction as the main aim of development cooperation, but opting instead for the reinforcement of self-reliance. It is worth examining those two aims in greater detail to see whether a fundamental break has really occurred. I am completely in the dark about how the WRR itself defines poverty reduction. It refers to improving immediate living conditions via investments in social sectors, specifically mentioning education, health care and drinking water. The focus is therefore on services. This is linked to comments about measurability, the obsession with results and narrowing development cooperation down to service provision. The WRR acknowledges that there have been improvements in global welfare but doubts the influence of development cooperation in achieving them. The pursuit of higher incomes is portrayed as having failed. In a word, without an increasingly strong economic base, poverty reduction primarily means palliative care.

In this way, the WRR redefines poverty reduction. After all, in 1999, donors and developing countries – inspired by the views of Amartya Sen and others – defined poverty reduction in terms of five different dimensions: social, economic, cultural, political and security. All these dimensions of poverty relate to the degree to which individuals have the freedom to develop in that dimension. Poverty reduction is thus not based one-sidedly on social services and income or employment. Issues such as security (food, shelter, physical violence), cultural identity (discrimination, problems relating to indigenous peoples, gender, religion) and politics (power, civil and political rights, democracy) play an essential role.

If the value of all these dimensions is assessed, what more is then needed to promote self-reliance? Nothing, in my view. The essence of the WRR’s argument seems to me not the difference between self-reliance and poverty reduction, but between a micro and a macro approach to development. The definition of poverty encompasses a micro perspective: what poverty means for individuals. Current development policy does exactly this. Since the introduction of the sector-wide approach into Dutch development cooperation, the motto has been to analyse at micro level and act at macro level. The WRR chooses for the economy and for the role of the state as a regulator and guardian, and as managing links with worldwide developments. This is a typical macro perspective, for analysis and action.

Why does the Council state so explicitly that a fundamental break is needed, if self-reliance and poverty reduction are almost identical in practice? The term poverty, as defined above, implies a continuous struggle for access to social services, economic resources, power, identity and security. That struggle can sometimes be grim and physical in the form of war, discrimination, exclusion and exploitation. It helps, of course, if such conflicts can be alleviated by greater prosperity, a choice which the WRR implicitly makes. The poorest countries in Africa have also undergone very substantial growth in recent decades. At country level, this has been macroeconomic growth. But large areas and entire societies have often experienced no growth whatsoever.

Moreover, change is still often accompanied by conflict. The Council does not refer to this conflict and therefore, in my opinion, misses a fundamental point of the analysis. This also has a significant effect on the recommendation to place a greater emphasis on economic growth. After all, distribution and redistribution then become a whole lot easier. This is a completely logical argument if growth actually materialises and the poor are able to benefit from it. If not, very different strategies have to be applied. These are not so much aimed at the use of violence to restructure interests, but rather at channelling conflict into political struggle, a struggle for access to economic resources and power, and the freedom to develop identity.

The WRR then defines development as an accelerated modernization of relations between economy, administration, politics and society. In the first chapters, which present a historic overview of developments in, for example, Asia, the Council concludes that developments in South Korea came about primarily through the use of a strong factor: the administrative capacity to provide services and enforce policy. This is development inspired by administrative power, which was preceded by a hard-bought battle to break down feudal structures in the agricultural sector (in which the US played a leading role) and to make family connections in industry (Chobols) subordinate to administrative requirements.

During this process, an autocratic administration kept society ‘quiet’ by the effective provision of services, and political elites by privileges. Above all, the administration used the substantial economic growth this generated to achieve additional development. Douglass North also described this – more proficiently – in his book Violence and Social Order. North states that societies in which freedoms are still limited (in line with the above definition of poverty) are in fact characterized by a monopolization of political and economic power, and that development is then only really possible by gradually liberalizing economic power. To achieve the transition to a society with complete freedoms, the liberalization of political power is also required. For North, this is a sequential process, which the WRR also appears to accept. However, it is a sequential process fed by structural changes which take place slowly but surely within societies.

All kinds of battlegrounds can be identified in the network of relations between economy, administration, politics and society. For example, between economy and politics there is the disentwining of political and economic power. Between society and administration the struggle is, for example, about inclusiveness, and in the relationship between administration and economy the issue is the demarcation and organization of public and private space. Between administration and politics it is about, for example, processes of accountability and transparency, and between politics and society it is democratization. Citizens are involved in all these struggles, whether they work for government bodies or companies, or are active in political or social movements. They are the ones that try to get to grips with the processes of change. Within societies, therefore, there are also key battlegrounds which provide the backdrop for conflict and change.

There is also space for outside influences – indeed more than the WRR appears to realize. It is crucial to identify the active battlegrounds in any society and any country. In addition – and unfortunately the WRR does not make this link – worldwide developments adapt to each of these different relations. Development is then primarily about channelling the battles being fought out in these theatres, and that means a limited role from outside but one in which timing and proportion are important, as is acknowledging the primacy of local actors and processes and the individual route and outcomes which will be defined. Not from the viewpoint of local isolation, but on the basis of an awareness that the local conflict of interests is intermingled with worldwide processes. It is those worldwide processes that allow new threats and opportunities to be identified, so that local problems become solvable. Then there is indeed no place for blueprint thinking. This is no new insight on the part of the WRR but a consensus which is now widely embraced. It also means that it is by no means always necessary to use scale for achieving impact; neither does it imply that by restricting the number of partner countries we work with, the thicker spread of capacity per country will result in a greater say in each country. It also means that the agenda for worldwide public goods has to be linked closely to what that means at local level.

The WRR’s three development goals – improving immediate living conditions, human development, and safeguarding worldwide public goods – are not separate but intrinsically linked. The sequential process of economic and political liberalization is sooner an outcome of, than an input in, the various battlegrounds. Where lies the power from which change can take place? That is a key question which should feature in a country-specific approach. Or should we seek the weakest link, or what the WRR calls the ‘binding constraint’? Does this question lead to a sufficient country-specific approach or does it result from an externally conducted analysis? The WRR seems to evoke the latter when it links the capacity for analyzing the ‘binding constraint’ with the challenge of professionalization facing the Netherlands as a donor.

In my view, the core of development cooperation is acknowledging the fact that development means ‘conflict’ and that this conflict must be channelled so as to minimize the negative consequences and optimize the opportunities for breakthroughs. It is far from being a technical or mechanical assignment. That makes tremendous demands on very specific knowledge. In this, the WRR is absolutely right. But it does not automatically mean that the ministry itself has to have knowledge of how to organize drinking water supplies, how healthcare systems function, or the structure of education systems. Instead, it primarily needs to have knowledge of economic processes of change, of political-administrative relations and of social-cultural processes. This means knowledge of countries and transition as a trademark of development cooperation. That is where the pressure to professionalize development cooperation lies.

This links up closely with the need, frequently discussed internally, for ‘development diplomats’, that is people who, on the basis of a keen insight into local relations and broad access to local networks, are able to link past, present and future processes at macro and micro levels and make economic, administrative, social and environmental connections. If the need for knowledge is defined in this way, it will also be possible to professionalize on the basis of longer postings and a regional or thematic focus. In cooperation with other players. After all, the above analysis clearly shows that NGOs and companies, for example, an play a major role because they have experience with working in local contexts and because they can relate to the perspectives of citizens who are active within local societies as employees, activists or administrators. And also because they may be able to link up with worldwide and regional networks and therefore establish connections between local, national, regional and global developments. This knowledge is badly needed. This is the challenge facing the ministry, one which does not have to be at odds with the requirements imposed by a diplomatic service. The question is, above all, whether development cooperation and diplomacy have the space to accommodate both needs. If not – and that is the conclusion the WRR draws – an organizational division would seem to be the logical step. However, the WRR’s conclusion may not be desirable, precisely because a holistic, integrated approach to development is so badly needed. Reality will reveal which solution works best.

In my view, the WRR fails to acknowledge conflicts of interest and the role which external actors can play in them. That is why investments in social sectors are regarded as palliative rather than enhancing emancipation. That is why the focus is very strongly on economic growth with almost a blind spot for security, reform of governance and political democratization. That is why preference is given to a considerable presence with influence being exerted on the basis of strength, rather than to inventive timing and proportionality. After reading the WRR report, you are left with the feeling that the Council reverts to more technical, almost mechanical, development cooperation, which breaks with the clearly more political orientation of recent years. These are the questions with which Dutch development cooperation has been struggling for a couple of years now. It is a difficult struggle which is not at all easy to translate for a general public that is looking on, often sympathetically, from the sidelines. We have become trapped by a need for accountability for results, leading to development cooperation being narrowed down to a form of service provision. The WRR also realizes this is happening and considers it unwelcome. I fully agree. Results are very important and an essential form of accountability, but they are not enough on their own. A politically-oriented accountability, clearly indicating what role the Netherlands wishes to play, is now urgently required. I believe that will lead to accountability that focuses on what is being achieved in our partner countries. Such country-specific accountability also leads to a merging of the accountability in our partner countries and in the Netherlands. Would it not be a major step forwards if political accountability in the Netherlands was inspired by local accountability in the partner country, for example by means of prior political consultations between members of parliament from both countries?