Ton Dietz: We need a serious debate about serious issues, not hit-and-run one-liners; nor from our Southern colleagues

Development Policy12 Feb 2010Ton Dietz

On February 10, two Dutch organizations responsible for stimulating public support for development assistance (NCDO and IS) organzsed a public evening debate about the WRR report. They did this in English, because they had invited some twenty guests from the South – not only for this meeting, but also for a range of ‘voice over’ activities in the Netherlands. These guests had received an English-language summary of the book and its introduction. Unfortunately, there is no English translation of the book as a whole yet. I understand that the WRR authors want to adjust the text, integrating some of the comments and criticisms and making it ‘less Dutch’. But for a debate that is ever more international, it is a bit strange that the book was not published in English at the start.

I was asked to listen to what people had to say during the debate (and particularly the Southern ‘voices’), and to give a brief summary of the main points at the end. I tried to do that, but I was not at all happy with the evening and my summary reflected a bit of that anger. Maybe that was not clear enough; let me first give the summary and then add some anger.


This is how Koen Kusters summarized my points (he made a report for the WorldConnectors, to be discussed on February 16).

‘I would like to share some surprises with you. First, this debate is about a book that has brought back nuance in the debate on development cooperation and coherence. However, a discussion like this tends to be simplified again into one-liners. That is not the way complexity should be handled. Second, poverty reduction and MDGs seem to be reduced to the support of health care and education. But they are much more than that. I would like to point to MDG 8, which is about coherence, and bringing globalization back into the development discussion. The Netherlands should focus on that MDG. Third, many of the southern commentators here tonight asked why the report emphasizes economic growth, while it does not automatically benefit the poor, or may even affect them negatively. This raises an urgent question: how to establish a distribution effect of economic growth? Lastly, regarding the comment made by some people in the audience suggesting that the responsibility for the socio-economic situation in a country lies within that country itself, I would like to stress that in the current globalized world, no country is capable of solving its problems in an isolated manner. Globalization means mutual influencing and mutual responsibility.’


It was very busy that evening, and in the audience there must have been a wealth of experience. The evening started with some hat-on/hat-off fun to get to know who was in the audience: people from all over the world and from very different backgrounds, including many from the ‘private sector’ (the – rather painful – leftovers when ‘all’ categories had been asked to present themselves and sit down). Unfortunately, the hurried ‘sit and stand’ style of debate did not go away during the rest of the evening and the carefully constructed arguments in the book (which are a joy to read) became yes-no dichotomies again. The nuance that is so necessary to avoid childish simplicity became the victim (once again) of a debating style where form is more important than content, and where wisdom is killed halfway through a sentence.

One of these dichotomies is the ‘south’ versus the ‘north’ (with some fun about the southern Netherlands). Many if not all the voices from the South, as well as the ‘diaspora’ present in the audience, were people who form part of what I call a global citizenry. I assume that some have studied in Europe or North America, many have succeeded in their studies and careers supported by one form of development assistance or another, and many currently receive part of their income by working for organizations supported financially by the North. Also, many people in the audience from the Netherlands and other Northern countries have lived lives in which work for and in developing countries shaped their experience. There is nothing wrong with global citizenry – in fact, they form the forerunners of globalization. But don’t pretend that they ‘speak for the South’ or ‘for the North’. This continued thinking in separate geographical entities blocks understanding.

And it goes further than that. If we had been able to do a chain analysis of the food that all participants ate that evening, of the clothes they wore, and of the last visuals that they saw or the last music that they heard, we would have found an utterly globalized consumption basket, with many production and distribution hubs present and also, of course, left over or marginal areas in between. Mutual influencing is all over the place, and yet still we seem to think in terms of ‘countries’ with their own ‘need to be self-reliant’ and ability ‘to take care of themselves’ (one participant, the doctor/fireman from Bolivia, even stated that the ‘development of Bolivia is Bolivia’s responsibility, and nobody else should bother’). In the era of globalization (whether you like it or not), we really need another vocabulary.

Then there was the exchange of one-liners about poverty reduction versus development (or growth) – again, a dichotomy that is not very useful for a real understanding! The WRR authors rightly stress that Dutch aid (and international aid in general, following the success of the MDGs as catalysts of a ‘new development spirit’) has put a one-sided emphasis on (primary) education and (basic) health care, and has not done enough to link these better educated and more healthy people to expanding labour markets, as that was seen by the Washington consensus as a task for the private sector. They rightly stress the need to rethink the necessity of direct and indirect support for employment creation, market access, and economic facilitation in general. So far, so good.

But in presenting their points, they tend to overstress their point: in the practice of development aid, poverty reduction strategies are much more than just support for education and health care (in the view of the WRR, it is as if poverty alleviation equals investments in health and education, and it is as if the MDGs are only about that). In addition, in developing their arguments for more emphasis on economic growth and employment creation, they undermine their credibility by neglecting the perverse effects of economic growth: more poverty for ‘development victims’, much higher inequality with destabilization effects on politics and society, environmental destruction and resource depletion. And it was strange to hear that the WRR authors so easily ignore MDG 8 while their whole book supports the plea for much more serious policy coherence – which is exactly what MDG 8 is all about. And please, Bram van Ojik, don’t ever again use the argument that Africa’s relatively high economic growth between 1998 and 2008 can be explained by the ‘major increase in aid investments in health care and education’ during that period, if you want to defend the ministry’s choices for their major support to these two sectors. Africa’s economic growth during that decade had other reasons, and we both know that investments in education and health care only had a minor impact during and soon after implementation; they can have a major development impact two or three decades afterwards, but don’t expect wonders too soon!

Finally, talking in terms of ‘investments in the social sector’ versus ‘investments in the economic sector’ and equating those to ‘support for the poor’ versus ‘support for the middle classes’ is not very helpful either. The so-called social sector is not just providing social services; it is also full of people who work there, who earn salaries and spend their income, of production and distribution chains (e.g. of medicines and school books) and of people who sometimes belong to the economic elite (e.g. some medical practitioners). The so-called economic sector on the other hand (agriculture, the provision of water, industry, and tourism, to name a few) is full of social values and opportunities for social networking and social aspiration (and there are many poor people who scratch a livelihood together as day labourers and farm tenants; the majority do not belong to the middle classes!). And among both workers and entrepreneurs, there is a lot of learning and capacity building. In short: the ‘economy’ is full of ‘education’. So let’s avoid easy talk. The private sector man from socialist Vietnam (producing bamboo materials for IKEA) rightly linked value chains to knowledge chains. That’s what ‘development’ is all about. Linking people to enhance people’s potential.

The second part of the debate was about the ‘architecture’ of Dutch aid. There seemed to be general agreement about the fact that development is a knowledge-intensive ‘industry’, and that improving the level of professionalism is a key challenge for Dutch aid in the next twenty years. There was some debate about how bad it actually is (Louk Box: ‘the Netherlands still spends €150 million per year on development-oriented research, and the Netherlands is still well known for its successful capacity development activities, and very well known for its – knowledge-intensive – wealth of civil society knowledge, all over the world’). And there was some shared admiration about DFID’s leading role in knowledge-for-development, and some shared booing of USAID. There was even a suggestion to merge NLAID and DFID; I would then say add other like-minded donors, maybe as a path that leads to a shared and trusted ‘Europaid’. I would also say: shouldn’t we first know much more about the pros and cons of the various architecture options? Shouldn’t this be the first point in the follow-up agenda?

Indeed, the debate should be about the level and type of professionalism that you need, but also about the required levels of scale. The WRR report very much focuses its ideas about the proposed NLAID on the level of scale of the Netherlands and ten other countries (or regions), and on the national levels of these countries (or regions). In the debate, people lamented the lack of attention for the multilateral level, and the lack of appreciation for the civilateral agencies and their outreach to a multitude of local levels, but also their success in becoming visible as political players at a global level. The WRR report is not clear enough about the scope and tasks of the NLAID field offices: do they distribute all Dutch aid to these ten countries, including aid via multilateral, bilateral, civilateral, local government, private sector and knowledge agencies? Or is it restricted to the (small and ever more marginal) bilateral aid? And if the Netherlands should focus on a few sectors (water, agriculture, international law and HIV/AIDS are mentioned), is that only relevant for that small bilateral section or for all Dutch aid flows? Including coherence and hence also non-ODA money? Shouldn’t we start with coherence and go from there to aid? And how do we do that, at what levels of scale? These were the questions that the facilitator should have asked the WRR authors, and which were grossly bypassed in the debate by focusing it only on images of DFID and USAID. And if you ask the ‘Southern voices’ for their opinion, these opinions should of course be contextualized. Of course, the South African NGO representative would give a positive story about the role of NGOs, and of course the Afghan man who used to work for Cordaid and now for Save The Children was full of praise for the Dutch method in Uruzgan. But what do we learn from this for designing a new overall structure?

I really hope the debates that will follow have a higher level of sophistication.