Populism, the West and the ‘rest’

Knowledge brokering30 Nov 2010René Grotenhuis

Xenophobia and nationalism are the order of the day in domestic populist politics. This shifting mindset, endorsed by increasing numbers of citizens, poses a challenge for those who are engaged in international cooperation and believe in an open, pluralist society.

The dangers of populism have opened people’s eyes to the outdated doctrine of the traditional aid model, which took for granted a North-South, rich-poor divide. This model needs to be discarded in favour of a new narrative that looks far beyond the Millennium Development Goals.

This new narrative has to focus on the shared self-interest of countries and people for more global justice and pluralism. Inge Kaul, adjunct professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, called it collective self-interest in her special report of the same name in The Broker issue 20.

The self-interest of people in Southern countries increasingly coincides with the self-interest of the developed world. For example, both Brazilians and Western Europeans have a stake in preserving the Amazon rainforest – the lungs of the world – just as both Nigerians and Dutch citizens have an interest in managing the scarce resources of Nigerian oil fields, and Somalis and the British have a shared interest in maintaining a secure and stable Horn of Africa.

A new narrative is urgent because European populist movements want to brush aside development organizations and professionals as a cosmopolitan elite that is wrongfully embracing globalization. The fact that this so-called elite advocates a more just and sustainable world is of no interest to them. Populists are less interested in what is going on in New York, Nairobi or Beijing than what is happening in their own back gardens.

Moreover, the new alliances between the economic Right and the populist Right are a cause for alarm. The former only has eyes for the economic and financial interests of developed countries, and is all but blind to others’ needs. Worse, they have failed to learn the lessons of the financial crisis and continue to push for the deregulation of the financial markets. The populist Right, meanwhile, is primarily interested in defending its given country’s ‘national’ identity, which it feels is being threatened by migrants, refugees, Muslims and other ‘outsiders’.

The geopolitical changes we are facing are undoubtedly fundamental ones. The combined impact of 9/11, the financial crisis and the rise of emerging economies is reshaping the landscape of international policy making in general and more specifically development policy making. A new development narrative must respond to these changes.

Europe, the United States, Australia and, most recently, post-world war Japan have been calling the shots in almost every domain of public life for more than 500 years. These countries have been setting the technological, military, economic, political and cultural agenda for the rest of the world. In many ways, the ‘rest’ has been forced to dance to their tune, unable to challenge their supremacy. The question is, now that this power is gradually shifting to the East and the South, with the emergence of countries like China, India and Brazil, will the traditionally powerful be dancing to someone else’s tune in the near future? Will China’s style of international diplomacy take the lead? Will this century see Bollywood conquer Hollywood?

The traditional narrative of development was based on a traditional worldview that divided the West and the rest. Historically, the strongest pillar of development cooperation has been a narrative of altruism and morality. This narrative was driven by a self-perceived image in Western countries that because they were rich, they were obliged to share their wealth with the distant poor. This was often accompanied by an ethical (often Christian) imperative to do so – an obligation that to many entailed a moral superiority.

The traditional narrative is on the wane. The divide between rich and poor is no longer a clear North-South divide, but one of inequality within societies. The images in the news of the super-rich in cities like Hong Kong, Bangalore, São Paulo and Moscow, have begun to re-write the traditional narrative all by themselves.

Travel to these countries is on the rise, as is travel to middle-income countries like Costa Rica and Indonesia, and the fact that there is little difference between a shopping mall in Amsterdam or Cologne and a shopping mall in Nairobi or Jakarta has not gone unnoticed.

The main pillar of a new development narrative, alongside collective self-interest, is inequality, something that is getting worse wherever we look. The truth is that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, whether in Italy, the United States, Brazil or Zambia. Inequality is omnipresent, in low-, middle- and high-income countries, and that is what the new narrative needs to focus on.

Poverty is no longer always the consequence of total deficiency, let alone the result of fateful circumstances. Poverty is about distribution and access. Who owns natural resources, who owns land, who controls access to education and health?

These questions should certainly be asked of emerging economies, which often have huge numbers of people under the poverty threshold, such as India and Indonesia. But these questions also pertain to African countries, many of which have massive natural reserves, whether it be oil, minerals or land.

Collective self-interest and inequality – these are the new global development narrative’s buzzwords. No longer will the focus be exclusively on the poor, way over yonder. This narrative will unite the here and the there. It will unite all those who have suffered from the financial crisis and reckless economic transactions everywhere.

The exciting challenge is to search for a self-interest shared by people who geographically may be far removed from each other, but who recognize each other in their commitment to a more just world. They will be the drivers of change who exemplify a true cosmopolitism that is rooted in neither North nor South, East nor West – but in a vision of reciprocity.