Rene Grotenhuis: An overarching goal for development cooperation

Development Policy23 Feb 2010René Grotenhuis

The missing link between history and future

Many of the contributions to the debate on the report ‘Less pretension, more ambition’ have concentrated on the organizationally oriented recommendations of the WRR, advocating for the establishment of NLAID and a rigorous focus on fewer countries. My contribution will focus on the way the WRR formulates the goals of development cooperation.

The problem of goals and means

In the concluding chapter (on page 278), the report formulates three types of goal: poverty reduction; development by economic growth; contribution to global public goods. Apart from the methodological problem that, in their second set of goals, ‘development’ is the goal of ‘development’, these three lack an overarching goal that holds them together and creates a synergy between them. Without any such overarching goal, there is serious doubt that there will be a coherent approach to development. It is unlikely that realizing our goals on poverty reduction and realizing our goals on global public goods will come together. The countries to be selected for the first goal are perhaps not the most strategic ones to cooperate with to realize the third goal.

The formulation of the three sets of goals is a consistent conclusion of the broad and comprehensive, and therefore laudable, historical analysis of the WRR, and of all the discourses of the past decades. These three sets of goals are indeed three of the main policies that have dominated the discourse, with the global common goods being the most recent, but rapidly increasing, stream within the discourse.

The problem of development cooperation and its future is not solved by putting these three next to each other as the three goals of development cooperation. All the more because ‘poverty reduction’, ‘economic growth’ and ‘contribution to global public goods’ are not convincing as goals. They could also be seen as intervention strategies; actions taken to realize something on a higher level. The WRR report acknowledges that problem. It rightly argues that poverty reduction (programmes on education, health, HIV/Aids) and economic growth (increasing GDP) are themselves not solving the problem of a lack of development.

The problem of means and goals is essential to development. Part of the problem of development cooperation is this putting together of goals and activities, and therefore a lack of rigour in the goals/means analysis. In my opinion, the problem of goals and means is not well solved in the conclusions of the report.

In the report, the WRR accepts ‘accelerated modernization’ as the goal of development cooperation (page 61). It doesn’t question this starting point, saying also that other approaches (like the Bejing consensus) are essentially taking this goal, although with some modification, as a starting point. But the new challenges that the global common goods (natural resources, water, food, climate) pose to the current modernization are not taken into account. Bringing the global goods into the debate should have caused the WRR to reflect on this modernization theory as the overarching goal of development cooperation.


Development cooperation should also be tackled from the perspective of responsibility. When we speak about cooperation, it is important to define which party is responsible for what part of the cooperation. If the WRR states that poverty reduction and economic development should be the goals of development cooperation, the first question should be: who is responsible for reducing poverty?

For me, there can be no discussion that the first one to be responsible for this is the national government. Without that responsibility, the social contract in the relations between government and people would be void. It is a telling reality that even in the European Union, the most advanced multilateral institutional setup, the responsibility for poverty (social services, welfare, pensions) remains with national governments. If this is true, the work of development cooperation must be put into this framework. And we cannot imagine that developing countries would continue to be dependent on foreign aid.

In its report, the WRR frequently refers to the issue of self-reliance (zelfredzaamheid), but the WRR fails to take this as an essential element of its framework. Development cooperation should always try to contribute to the self-reliance of countries in poverty reduction. This responsibility approach is very relevant, because from the definition of responsibilities we can come to the contribution of developed countries. The principle of self-reliance underpins the catalyst approach of development cooperation, instead of an interventionist approach.

Putting the question of responsibility into the discourse also makes it clear that we cannot put issues like poverty reduction and global common goods on the same level in our analysis: whereas poverty reduction belongs first and foremost to the responsibility of national governments, global common goods, although affecting people on national and local levels, are part of global government arrangements. The question of economic growth, which the WRR sees as the second set of goals, is somewhere in between the national responsibility of governments and international/global responsibilities.

An overarching goal?

If ‘accelerated modernization’ is no longer acceptable as goal for development cooperation because of the problem of the notion of modernization itself, we should try to develop a new, overarching goal. Without any pretension to have the final answer, I’m trying to find that goal in the direction of ‘strengthening the self-reliance of countries in view of a sustainable globalization’.

  • Our interventions in poverty reduction, social programmes (health, education, HIV/Aids), and economic development should be oriented towards this self-reliance. Programmes and projects should also be challenged to answer this question: what is their contribution to the principle of self-reliance?
  • The reality of globalization is there for all developing countries. Self-reliance and self-determination in isolation are not possible. Every path of development should take globalization into account.
  • The notion of sustainability is important to make a clear distinction with the traditional (western) modernization theory, which is unsustainable and not a path to follow. This offers developing countries the opportunity to bypass the non-sustainable path of western modernization.
  • Sustainable globalization brings the question of development from an issue of developing countries to the global level. Also, Western Europe needs a new development agenda based on global sustainability.