Managing the commons

Development Policy31 May 2010Johan van de Gronden

Johan van de Gronden, Director World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Netherlands, responds to the background article “Going global” in the context of the online debate about Dutch development cooperation triggered by the report Less Pretension, More Ambition by the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR).

How to avoid a tragedy of the commons on a planetary scale is arguably the most pressing and complex question of political philosophy in our days. There is some logic in the expectation that the Netherlands would be a country to look for early solutions. The country is small, densely populated and makes a living through global trade. The population needs 4 times the biocapacity of its own territory to sustain its lifestyle. The country lost 85 out of 100 animal and plant species in the last 100 years. Apart from a natural gas bubble in the 1960’ies (which inflationary effects led the Economist in 1977 to introduce the concept of “Dutch disease” into economic theory) the Dutch have few natural resources. It is intuitively clear that the Dutch depend on others for their prosperity. Going it alone is calling for an Easter Island collapse. So it comes as no surprise that the Dutch were in the vanguard of regional economic integration, forming a Benelux cooperation decades before a common European idea was born. The Dutch also acted as a founding member of the Treaty of Paris (1951), which led to the European Coal and Steel Community, a precursor to the European Union.

And yet the tide has turned. The Dutch political landscape is hopelessly fragmented, the country lost its leading position in the Cleantech sector, ranking # 17 between Greece and Slovakia according to a recent study, it added windpower capacity to its deeply fossil energy mix to the tune of 2 turbines last year (where offshore wind is on its way to become one of the largest energy sectors the coming decade) and strands of overt racism have entered mainstream political discourse in a country that once hosted intellectual free thinking refugees like Rene Descartes and John Locke.

After the 9 June elections, nobody should be surprised if the Dutch axed their once so generous development budget in half. Decades of development aid, matching the UN’s 0.7% GDP target with only 3 other Nordic countries, has not brought the desired returns. World poverty is rampant, the single largest beneficiary of Dutch Aid by far, Africa, trails behind any statistic and East Asian economic wonders have risen to economic powers without significant amounts of aid. The Dutch have fooled themselves, so many say, it is time for collective scepticism.

Against this background the conclusions and recommendations of the WRR report are rather unhelpful. The report essentially argues along the mantra: “less is more”. A big Thank you! from a newly formed coalition government is a likely answer. If we regroup our aid efforts around a dozen countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, quality of aid will rise. And ‘aid’ is shorthand for aid that accelerates a modernisation process in the beneficiary country. Let’s call it NLAID at that, in line with the nationalist Zeistgeist to plant our tricolour on everything ‘ours’. Never mind we do not know what ‘modernisation’ means. The real issue of contemporary foreign policy and international cooperation, the governance of global public goods (like biodiversity, clean water, a healthy climate or dynamic ecosystems sustaining the livelihoods of billions), is referred to another study.

I think our prospective new government is ill advised by the WRR. Here’s why. We may have less than a generation left to turn the tide on climate change, biodiversity loss, soil degradation and resource depletion. Treating poverty alleviation in isolation of global root causes is setting ourselves up for another inherent failure. And we miss out on a new urgent awareness: it is in our very own interests to manage the aforementioned ‘commons’ in a more effective way. Less and less national policies are capable of addressing policy dilemma’s effectively. There is hardly a policy area of national interest without international ramifications, from economic affairs to migration, from spatial planning to management of natural resources, from development aid to fisheries. No super minister of Foreign Affairs can handle this on her own, neither can a minister for International Cooperation. We must thoroughly revisit the architecture of our departmental division of labour, once designed to meet the challenges of a past era. And we must anchor our challenge of a lifetime: how to avoid a tragedy of the commons, right at the centre of our considerations.

There is no consensus on the origins of the concept of the commons. Some refer as far back as to the writings of Thycidides in the 5th Century BC, but many refer to the seminal article of American biologist Garrett Hardin in the December issue of Science in 1968. Hardin describes the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as a situation in which individuals, acting independently and out of self-interest, ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even if this clearly runs against the interest of the entire community depending on the common resource. Common pastureland is the most frequently cited case, but if we substitute individuals for countries and pastureland for any common planetary and finite resource, we quickly grasp the power of comparison.

We can’t withdraw behind our dikes, adopt a few target countries eligible for Dutch aid to relieve our conscience and ignore the immense effort ahead of us. Scarcity is the source of all innovation. In theory the Dutch may thrive in this arena, as scarcity is our abundance. Dutch prime-ministers love to take up their rightful place at the G20 dining tables. Fine. But then you have to bring something too. A coherent and inspiring vision of how to collectively preserve the fragile commons on an increasingly interconnected planet would be a good start.