New globalism or old nationalism?

Knowledge brokering15 Oct 2010

The good news is that this government is determined to open up the ivory towers of development cooperation. It follows the WRR, which has already cleared, and to a certain extent pointed, the way. Taboos are off the table. I think this is healthy, because development cooperation is in crisis and transition is inevitable.

The underlying contract with the Dutch taxpayer/voter, based on the well-known mixture of solidarity and charity carried forward by socio-democratic and/or Christian-democratic coalitions, lasted a couple of decades but has now expired. Renewal is needed. Call it the democratization of development cooperation. Key question one: how to overcome or change vested interests and well-established institutions? Key question two: what will come instead?

Scenario 1

Critics will probably point to the budget cuts for development cooperation, the modest international ambitions and a (nevertheless) liberal economic growth agenda, in combination with a social agenda that is conservative and inward looking. In such a context, the ivory towers could easily be replaced by something that could be worse: a re-nationalization of international (development) cooperation. Official Development Aid (ODA) could end up as a subsidy for the Least Developed Countries (LDC) oriented activities of Dutch organizations, firms and knowledge institutes, driven by narrow self-interest and opportunistic motives.

Back to old nationalism, to the days of scattered, supply-driven and – even worse – tied aid? Of course this is not what the WRR is proposing. But the WRR is also not very clear on how to do development cooperation with a small country, based on Dutch strengths, through the Dutch private sector and with visible Dutch professionalism (NL Aid) and, at the same time, avoid the pitfalls of multiple donor-driven interventions. It is a big challenge to strike a balance between the Paris Agenda and the WRR principles.

I think that smart marriages between the development world (with an antenna for things like local contexts, participation, alignment, empowerment and demand-driven processes) and strong economic sectors (with an antenna for market opportunities, return on investment, economic risks, entrepreneurship, innovation, etc.) are key in this respect. This can only work by shifting the exclusive ownership of MDGs and ODA, from the development sector to shared arrangements with actors outside that sector, on the level of ministries as well as between societal organizations and the private sector.

Scenario 2

But my bet, or rather hope, for the longer term is actually on something beyond these dichotomies: on new globalism. Not to be mistaken for self-proclaimed global citizenry, neither for ODA percentages or pure aid. These belong to the old development world and discourse that this government wants to leave behind. New globalism would be much more about responding in a timely and effective way, at national and international levels, to global challenges. It’s about acting on the threats and opportunities that the world is facing and that influence lives (or even life) here and around the globe, now and in the future.

That implies broad (coherent) policies in the first place and, corresponding to these policies, international cooperation, including what used to be development cooperation. But it also implies the strategic positioning of the Netherlands in the global (knowledge) economy and ecology, as well as the protection of vulnerable groups or regions in our country against the negative consequences of globalization (in this respect, we are no longer that different from developing countries!).

What used to be development cooperation would then be back in the centre of the public interest; no longer as an isolated side event, an ivory tower or an afterthought, but as part of an ambitious (but not pretentious) agenda for global-Dutch development.

The resulting new contract with the taxpayer/voter would bring the MDGs into the mainstream activities of a broad range of societal organizations, knowledge institutes and especially the private sector (which is, in many cases, already a frontrunner in this respect), as well as into the core business of various ministries.

Jeroen Rijniers works for the newly created Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation.