Wouter de Groot: The goals are mud, the means are fine

Development Policy30 Apr 2010Wouter de Groot

Wouter de Groot, Professor CML, Leiden University, responds to the background article “Getting the basics right” in the context of the online debate about Dutch development cooperation triggered by the report Less Pretension, More Ambition by the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR).

Let me begin confessing that I have not read the full WRR report and that I rely on the Broker’s summaries. On the other hand, having been involved in development work and science since 1974 (then building infrastructure in Kenya, as if I knew the WRR was coming), I think I do have some right to speak. I will focus on the goals and means of development aid, as stated in the WRR report.

Overall, the aim of development aid according to the WRR is system modernization, as juxtaposed to care-oriented work. Care is noble but does not lead to self-sufficient countries or prospects for future generations. Propagators of non-economic dimensions of development have woefully failed to put principles into practice. And by the way, who cares if our ODA is 0.8 percent or less?

In line with many contributors to this discussion, my advice is to avoid this conceptual trap set by the WRR.

  1. Why would we follow the same ’modernization’ line of reasoning that caused so many of our problems to begin with? True modernization is modernization of our ideologies, and the world as we know it will be ecological or cease to exist.
  2. Much care, focused on individuals rather than systems, is future-oriented and beneficial to the system. Think about HIV/AIDS alleviation, mobile phones for smallholder farmers, micro-credit for women.
  3. Multi-dimensional development have always been obstructed by the same ideology of modernization that now proclaims its woeful failure.
  4. And, if we would – as I think we should – follow the practical recommendations of the WRR report and pay much more attention to the global system level, how should we do it? With five dapper guys at DGIS typing along on the internet? Having an impact on the global level will cost loads of money. For instance, 0.8 percent of GDP.

On that basis and again in line with many other contributors, let me try to formulate some more adequate principles for the goals of development aid.

  1. ‘Pure care’ should stay in, as one extreme on the gliding scale between fully rationalistic reasoning and ‘ethics of care’ arguments. Ethics of care a prime motivation for development aid in the general public, and I do not feel like having my mother, collecting money for Simavi in the rain, belittled by a handful of academics in an office in the Hague.
  2. Critical attention should go the care motive, budgets and practices, so as to make it rationally justifiable, ‘future-oriented care’ as much as possible.
  3. Much attention should go to self-formulated development pathways and the local government braches, universities and CSOs that may help this to come about.
  4. System modernization is the other extreme of the gliding scale between rationalistic reasoning and the ethics of care. Strong as this logic surely is, it should be seen as one logic only, to be fully healthy only if under permanent scrutiny by other logics and morals. What is the stability of system-level growth if the poor sink away ever deeper? Caring systems, such as our own society to some degree, are the successful ones in the long run. It is efficiency versus equity, economics versus protection of basic needs, as many theorists, from Pareto to the WLO and myself (Chapter 4.9) have tried to elucidate.
  5. And finally, sustainable development, as other contributors have remarked already, is a much better driving concept than modernization. That is because it includes economics and ecology, efficiency and equity. With that, it incorporates the whole struggle and its possible solution, as opposed to a monolithic and hegemonistic modernization ideology.

Less importantly but still somewhat disappointing, it would appear that The Broker’s own formulation of the ‘Getting the basics right’ does not fully escape from WRR’s conceptual trap. Collective self-interest is a freak dichotomy with moral motives of helping the poor. Helping the poor has always been quite self-interested too (avoiding revolution, you save a lot of money), and system modernization can be quite morally inspired. (Our system would really not suffer if Burkina Faso would vanish from the map; getting Burkina on a best possible macro-economic track is a moral act first of all.) The same holds for the dichotomy of modernization versus multi-dimensional poverty. Personally, I would opt to retain the term ‘poverty’ for the economic aspects of life, and I am now happily working on a poverty metric that integrates the time and cash aspects of this economic poverty and its counterpart, which is the time people have left after fulfilling the basic needs (sleep, caregiving, food etc.) of themselves and what they have to supply for other household members, e.g. children and the sick All this, however, has nothing to do with my opinion of modernization.

I now come to the development aid means, as opposed to the development aims goals, as proposed by the WRR. They are (a) a stronger focus on economic development, (b) a focus on only ten or so countries, and (c) much more attention to the global level. I fully endorse these means, for various simple reasons that I won’t go into here. At this point, one might wonder why someone of the right mind can oppose the goals of something and yet subscribe to its means. The reason is that in the implementation of the WRR means, the WRR goals will be mercifully forgotten. Working our way into a new, intense relationship with our ten countries, we will bring unto the scene all sorts of hidden and explicit goals, and we will encounter many others from these countries themselves. Any hypothetical person opening the WRR report to dogmatically restate what the ‘true goals’ are will be met by a deafeningly polite silence. The same will hold on the global level. We will meet the global NGOs, the global businesses, the WTO and all its watchdogs, the REDD and all its confusions, and out of all this, inconsistent but healthy mixtures of goals will emerge.