Pure self-interest will not secure our place in the world

Development Policy23 Jun 2010Frans Bieckmann

Interview with Bert Koenders

The Broker spoke extensively

Ministers have little time for reflection. They are inundated with overfull schedules, large piles of dossiers, and an unrelenting barrage of questions from people demanding their attention. They are forced to play on several chessboards at the same time. And that is even more true of a minister who also considers it important to concern himself with international themes beyond the traditional field of operation of development cooperation; at least to the extent that that field was ever fenced off. This certainly applied to Bert Koenders, who explicitly moved in international diplomatic circles, at the UN and its specialized agencies, at the World Bank and the IMF, and at the G20. In the past, Koenders has made it clear that he is in favour of a ‘Minister for International Cooperation’, who would be responsible for a wide range of global themes and for coordinating the policies of the different line ministries in respect of developing countries. Koenders’ Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) incorporated his call for a Minister for International Cooperation in its manifesto for the recent national elections on 9 June.

In the relatively quiet days that followed the fall of the Balkenende government in February 2010, Koenders suddenly found himself with time to do a lot of other things, including helping to write the development section of the PvdA election manifesto. Koenders had also played his part in the fall of the government: he was one of the ministers actively involved in the Netherlands’ policy on Afghanistan. The parties in the coalition could not agree on whether the Dutch mission in Uruzgan should be extended, leading to the fall of the fourth Balkenende cabinet after three years in office.

Shortly before, the WRR (Scientific Council for Government Policy) had published its report on Dutch development cooperation , which unleashed a broad debate not only within the development sector, but also elsewhere, for example at the Ministry of Economic Affairs . As a minister, Koenders never had the opportunity to respond to the report. As usual when the WRR publishes a report, his ministry had started drafting a policy response. That process continued after the fall of the government but has less priority for the time being, as the response must be published officially by the new government.

As it is not usual for a former-minister to say anything about what his successor does or does not do, Koenders has generally remained silent about the WRR report. That is not to say, however, that he does not have a clear opinion on the topics addressed in the report and the debates it has given rise to.

One of the clearest trends in the Dutch development debate is the need for a more global perspective. An important question to be addressed here is whether, in addition to the traditional focus on the state in development policy, it is necessary to conduct analyses and intervene at the global level, given that more and more threats – and opportunities – can no longer be addressed only within national borders.
Koenders: ‘The relationship between the national and international levels is complex. I believe that you need to intervene at both levels. I support the analyses of sociologist Saskia Sassen, which place global developments at the centre. I also used to be a great fan of Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems theory. They both look at the global economic system, with all its contradictions and consequences, including on a cultural level. Globalization, however, has a different effect in every state, and states are vulnerable in different ways. The winners and losers within states are continually changing. You will therefore have to work at the country level – partly because this is also where the democratic responsibility lies – and pursue a global strategy. But even a global strategy has to start with the states and organizations that enter into alliances in the international arena.

It is also positive that there is much more attention for global developments which are causing problems for more and more states, forcing them to seek solutions at global level. The way I see it, it is at that interface where national and global meet, that political points of entry are located. The clearest of these global issues is the environment. And then, of course, there is the financial and economic crisis. And conflict and terror. For me, these are the three main priorities at the global level. There is a lot of discussion about how they should be addressed. Countries are affected by them to different extents, but are forced to work together to find solutions. Unfortunately, this means that the weakest countries are in danger of getting the worst deal.’

Are these the three main global public goods that the Netherlands should focus on?
‘I find “global public goods” at best a misleading term, as a public good is something in which you invest so that it yields a profit from which everyone can benefit. That means it is not related to the costs or investments that any individual makes. But what we consider a public good is a political choice, and I believe that the WRR report does not analyze that sufficiently. It lists a series of issues that are of global interest, but does not explain why there are problems with them. And often they are not public goods as such, but privatized goods, over which there is no public control.

Does everything needed to be addressed together as a cohesive whole, or is it better to be more pragmatic, and develop separate strategies for each global theme?
‘You have to think very carefully about how you divide it up. It is of course true that everything in today’s world is interconnected, and that you cannot, for example, solve the financial and economic crisis without addressing the problem of sustainability. But, in terms of negotiating opportunities and political organizational power, it is much better to divide it up and undertake activities separately. You will achieve nothing by just throwing everything together on one big heap.’

Could you go into a little more detail about the three general priorities you see for tackling global problems: the financial and economic crisis, the climate, and security?

‘As far as the crisis is concerned- the challenge is to create global financial and economic development and stability. At the moment, that means in the first instance negotiating new ‘economic regimes’ to defuse the crisis. There are many potential points of entry there – a tax on financial transactions, for example. One thing I found very interesting was the report drawn up last year by a commission led by Joesph Stiglitz, at the request of the UN General Assembly. The report expressed the fear that only limited measures would be taken to allay the crisis, after which it would be back to business as usual. Stiglitz identified global inequality as the cause of the crisis, and showed that economic stability in the rich countries is directly linked to the interests of developing countries. That means that those who are concerned with reducing poverty in developing countries have an important new agenda. Our interests converge: employment in developing countries also means growth in the rich countries. But that will require taking a number of important measures.’

Such as what? And more especially: how can the Netherlands itself contribute to this?
‘One option might be international tax regimes, or changes to Dutch tax legislation. The Netherlands could also do much more to stimulate the international economy. Now, especially, we need to spend more to get growth going again. We have large surpluses on the balance of payments – we should plough them back into the global economy. But that is, of course, taboo at the moment, with the problems in Greece.

And then there is of course the trade agenda: European and global trade rules have to be fairer. I also consider the theme of policy space important: countries must be allowed more space to manage their own economies and develop their own comparative advantages. Of course, they still have to focus on international trade and open up their economies, but not too fast. There is actually already more policy space, but in a way that is not good for poor countries. The Netherlands is supporting its banks, and other European countries are helping their car industries. But that is not possible in Africa. The rules are currently being redefined by the powerful countries. That is understandable, but it is strange that the rich countries are now doing something that the WTO never allowed the poorest countries to do.And lastly: how can you link the Millennium Development Goals to economic growth? Or, in other words, how can you achieve growth that benefits the poor?’

And doesn’t growth clash with the environment agenda?
‘Sometimes. In any case, the economic crisis is currently acting as a brake on the environmental and sustainability agenda, while it could have pushed it forward.’

How do you explain that? There seemed to be some momentum, there were proposals for a Global Green New Deal….
‘Because we have no instruments. The consequence of neoliberal ideology is that you have no specific possibilities to stimulate the economy, pursue an industrial policy, or strengthen certain markets, such as those for sustainable goods. You just press the big buttons.’

But Germany and Spain, for example, have very explicitly pursued incentive policies based on sustainability.
‘In my opinion, the Netherlands is on the wrong track in this respect. We have no long-term policy. And now the tax benefits on sustainable energy have been scrapped. It is also a power issue: people who look a little further ahead do not yet have sufficient power. The figures for purchasing power for next year are more important than those for five years time. The CPB (Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis) calculates the impact of all the parties’ programmes, but does not take the environment into account.

But to return to the global level: you also need to link the issue of fair distribution of wealth to the environment. If you continue to think in terms of public goods, you risk depoliticising the issue. I would prefer to talk in terms of ‘environmental space’. And that space needs to be distributed more equally, meaning that rich countries have to take a step back.’

And the third priority?
‘That is the relationship between conflict, fragile states and insecurity. That is therefore also a global public good: if things are not organized better elsewhere in the world, we feel the impact here. But at the same time, as with the other two themes, there are conflicts of interest. Are we talking about our own security, human security, or the security of people in fragile states? In practice, the security interests of the rich countries often take precedence.’

Is enough attention given to these conflicts of interest? Shouldn’t Western government be pressurized much more in their own countries not to pursue only their immediate interests?
‘Yes, they should. And, in my view, NGOs should do a lot more. Development corporation is currently becoming much less political and more technocratic. There is no movement in the Netherlands that is taking advantage of this crisis to force through positive changes, such as a worldwide tax on financial transactions. In Germany, there is a heated debate underway on the country’s policy on Greece and the stability of the euro. The SPD, which is in opposition, has stated that it is willing to agree to the government’s proposals in exchange for such a tax. That is a breakthrough. If NGOs were to operate strategically, they would now try to get their positions adopted in a few other European countries.’

So it is a matter of choosing strategically at what point you should devote energy to it, and then trying to become a power factor in the debate?
‘Yes. I think that, at international level, we should think more in terms of power, and seek to form coalitions to enable us to better defend the interests of the poor and influence the global agenda. Coalitions of like-minded people, or with groups in other countries. Forming such coalitions to increase your power is the only way to ensure that global public goods are managed fairly, so that developing countries also benefit.’

What would these coalitions look like?
‘There are two kinds of coalitions. The first kind aims to achieve a political objective. You form them together with like-minded countries or groups, within your own comfort zone. Such coalitions are most clearly visible in the sustainability movement, where they are perhaps the most advanced because it is an easy area in which to formulate shared interests. The sustainability movement also contains countries, including developing countries, that realize that it is important to make agreements. We have not yet succeeded in doing that with Indonesia, while we have made some progress with Malaysia, and with Brazil the results are quite promising. You can also cooperate with certain companies, that can exert influence on international legislation. And with NGOs active in this area.

Secondly, you have to work within the existing power structure. You try to break through it but while it is there, you have to live within it. So you also have to try and change things within the EU, or through the IMF and the World Bank.’

Does this include the Netherlands’ efforts to play an active part in the G20?
‘I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we, as the Dutch government, have tried to do that, but you must be aware of the price you will have to pay. We must not allow it to affect our positions on, for example, Afghanistan, the climate or a system of regulation for the banks. But of course it does help if you have a place at the G20 table. We were able to get the interests of the poorest countries on the agenda. We asked the other members why those interests were not taken into account during talks on the climate or the crisis. At the same time, however, everything is currently up in the air. The structure of international governance can change at any moment. So you shouldn’t make too much effort to try and be part of the G20. If the price is too high, you shouldn’t join.’

Louise Stoddard minister Koenders inspects new police troups in North Uganda, 2007

The world is moving towards a multipolar power structure. What does that mean?
‘Then we come to the clichés that everyone is familiar with. The relative decline of the power and ideology of the United States. Not that the US is losing its prominence, but that other countries – and therefore perspectives – are becoming relatively more important. I think, by the way, that Europe is losing a lot of its power. The crisis has once again revealed its lack of resolve and unity. While, at the same time, the power of middle-income countries like India, Brazil and South Africa is increasing.’

And China?
‘China has much to gain from good management of a number of global public goods. But it wants to make agreements in a different way to what we are used to. That was clear, for example, at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen. We are accustomed to making binding agreements, with national emission ceilings and mechanisms to monitor them. Countries like China see that as “interference in domestic affairs”. So that is a cause of tension. But there may be other ways to achieve the same objective, for example by mutual agreement to adjust national plans. The fundamental question is whether we should strengthen our ties with China. I am strongly in favour of that. They do not yet know themselves precisely how they want to operate in the international arena. But they have chosen to participate in the international system. Even though they are doing that in their own national interest, I consider that engagement with the world as a positive development.’

Working more through coalitions to achieve political objectives: that calls for strategic thinking. How is that related to the demand for knowledge? You need to be able to make adequate analyses in concrete situations, to determine what you call “points of entry” and who you want as strategic partners. How can you structure such a process of strategic thinking? At the ministry, and elsewhere?
‘That by no means happens as much as it should. It is a great shame that there is not a strategic unit at the ministry

In my view, the Global Issue Centre proposed in the WRR is nonsense.

The WRR calls for a debate on the Netherlands’ globalization agenda: what is the Netherlands’ position in the world? What are our interests in the global playing field and, therefore, as regards global public goods?
‘I think a debate is a good idea. The Netherlands’ provincialism, which is inward-looking, is a logical consequence of globalization. Globalization produces losers. There are people in the middle class, for example, who no longer know if they are moving forwards or backwards. Quite logically, there is a sense of uncertainty. The problem is that our response is too provincial, too introverted. Instead we should think strategically about how we can reverse these trends.

I think that we have moved on from the time of pure self-interest. That is no longer enough to secure our place in the world. We now have to focus on human rights, development, and the climate. And that means that there is no longer a place for traditional diplomacy.

In the debate on the future architecture of development policy, various proposals have been made to embed the wider agenda institutionally: from a Minister for Sustainable Development or Global Development, to a Coherence Council comparable to the existing Social and Economic Council (SER). What are your feelings about this?
‘I don’t believe there is an ideal institutional anchor for the issue of coherence. I would like to see a Minister for International Cooperation. He or she would also be responsible for international trade policy, which is currently the mandate of the Directorate General for Foreign Economic Relations at the Ministry of Economic Affairs (DG BEB). And for parts of agriculture policy, and perhaps even international environment policy, but that would be more difficult. In addition, the minister would also be responsible for all European coordination, and have a portfolio, i.e. authority over, for example, personnel policy and the embassies. That is not the case for the current Minister for Development Cooperation, who is subordinate to the Minister of Foreign. There should also be a sub-cabinet within the cabinet, chaired by the prime minister and coordinated by the Minister for International Cooperation.’

But in this structure, the specific interests of developing countries are no longer represented. The Minister for international Cooperation will have to weigh up all interests. That will mean that the interests of developing countries will be neglected.
‘That is the greatest risk. And that is why I think that a development test is very important: all decisions made by the sub-cabinet will have to be assessed to see what impact they will have on developing countries. That is crucial, otherwise such reforms will only make the situation worse. I saw that happen at the environmental negotiations, where the development agenda soon got snowed under.’

And what do you think about the idea of a Coherence Council? With, for example, one third academics and other experts, one third from NGOs and the last third made up of civil servants, who together address consistently changing coherence-related themes. They would assess where interests converge and where they conflict, and then offer the government clear advice.
‘I think it is a good idea. It is important to have a council of this kind. But you could achieve the same by expanding the SER itself. The SER already has an important position, but needs updating. It already concerns itself with globalization and development. Perhaps it would be a good idea to allow new stakeholders to take part in the SER, in addition to the traditional employers, employees and Crown-appointed members. That is more feasible, and perhaps more effective, than setting up a new body. There are already enough advisory councils in this country. And it would only be really revolutionary if we were also prepared to allow representatives from developing countries to sit on the Council too.’