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Shobha Raghuram: Development futures: global commitments and national duties

Shobha Raghuram is an independent researcher who has specialised in development studies and philosophy.

When Frans and Ellen requested me to write about the WRR report, I readily accepted but, after reading the documents, I felt hesitant. I continue to do so for the simple reason that the entire report has yet to be translated; so whatever I have to say may not do justice to this work. Because this report is not accessible to me in its entirety, I restrict myself to a few observations that concern the core issues regarding international cooperation today in development; many of these issues have been referred to in the report.

WRR: energize political rethinking in society

It is commendable that the WRR report is generating a process that is a constructive and critical approach for bettering development cooperation. Self-critical reflexivity is always welcome, especially if there is a genuine desire to review, reform and push forward, with renewed vigour, a refurbished national plan for global partnerships in development. I must also add that it is my sincere hope that the entire report will get a serious response from the Dutch public, universities, development practitioners (e.g. international NGOs, people’s associations, and activists) and the media before it reaches the halls of Parliament.

It is my dismal experience that recommendations for action often get implemented almost mechanically, rather than with a wave of energizing political rethinking in society at all levels. This is not an issue that should be left to subject specialists alone. For the Netherlands, it is important to recognize, as the authors suggest, that decisions on the future course of development cooperation require a consensus among policy makers about: (a) what positions the publics take on globalization; (b) what the Netherlands and her citizens would like to bring to this discussion, and; (c) what form of internationalization would best promote the Netherlands’ political presence and niche in building positive futures of internationalism.

Globalization, global public goods and internationalism

The growing global divides in poverty, income gaps, human development, trade, and the escalating global conflicts, especially in Gaza and post-9/11 Afghanistan, have certainly created a gloom-and-doom atmosphere for development workers all over the world. Therefore, much needs to be done at the international level for a world that is hardly able to regain its balance in justice, peace and equity. Equity, as a distributive issue, is at the heart of global public goods. Inequalities sharpen conflicts and prevent the achievement of standards in labour, human rights and sustainable development.

It must be recognized that most financing of global public goods is done at the national level. Only US$1 of every US$200 spent on global public goods involves public spending at the global level. The latter follows the ‘beneficiary pays’ principle, in which donor countries are the main beneficiaries of their spending on international cooperation. Aid has to be distinguished from the financing of global public goods. A clear framework has to be drawn up wherein aid is for poverty eradication, without self-interest, in developing countries; and public finances have to be set aside for both inward-oriented cooperation, which harmonizes national policies on public finance for global public goods, and outward-oriented cooperation, which makes provisions for joint fiscal incentives at the international level (see, for example, Providing Global Public Goods; Managing Globalisation, Kaul, Mendoza, Conceicao, and Goulven (eds.), Oxford, NY, 2003, p.330).

Development aid is only one instrument of the larger programme of development; and the development vision is inextricable from globalization. Therefore, much of the work done on global inequalities over the years has stemmed from discussions of the merits and demerits of globalization and its impacts. The authors rightly suggest this connection; and they also bring to light a number of complex issues regarding the paradoxes of development and the need for a deep interrogation into the barriers impeding development efforts. They point to the kinds of institutional reforms required to overcome the impasses in both the spirit and practice of development.

However, the conclusions do not bear out this complexity; and they appear reductionist and almost arbitrary, e.g. on the number of countries, on the aid percentages, the required restructuring, including that of civil-society formations in the Netherlands, and the kind of analysis that is now needed. These conclusions appear sweeping and a bit premature; they do not do service to the nature of the commendable and distinct history of the issues that are being raised; and, eventually, they may come in the way of introducing fundamental shifts in the right direction. I am sure that the detailed report will be clearer than the summary we have been provided in tracing the connections between the analysis of the state-of-the-art and the reforms that are being recommended.

It is important to determine the vision of the Netherlands’ role in global development and the kind of partnerships it wishes to promote, which reflect best its sense of social justice. Much is at stake for all countries that wish to contribute to a world that is more human and equal than the one we live in. If they do not participate in decisions about their role in a globalizing world, they are likely to face the backlash of isolationism and the risk of a crisis, for which they are ultimately responsible, because of inaction against and silence on growing injustices.

Title of the report

There is a need for an accurate title for the report: the use of the term ‘pretentions’ is eye-catching but misleading. This title is unfair to sixty years of contributions to development, which may have been limited, but that were pragmatic and solid nonetheless; and, fortunately, Dutch development cooperation did not have an exaggerated view about its vision and achievements. Having worked with many international development aid organizations, both bilateral and multilateral, I have rarely found Dutch staff, or their policy documents, ‘pretentious’. (I refer specifically to their bilateral and non-state contributions in the areas of water, agriculture, air trade, basic education, HIV/Aids, gender, sustainable development, social security, food-for-work programmes, and disaster relief.) As a staff member of Hivos in the India Regional office and as a member of the National Steering Committee for IDPAD, I had several opportunities to work with committed Dutch activists, bureaucrats, academics, writers, film-makers, and management specialists, all of whom I have appreciated for their willingness to negotiate on both convergences and divergences in viewpoint and for their focus on results and accountability.

In all fairness, I feel there should be a public acknowledgement of the Netherlands’ solid contributions to development cooperation. Whereas large multilaterals publish, dime-a-dozen, a lot of work happens on the field with development funds; these do not attract the big-time soundbytes but they trigger considerable, large-scale changes. The narratives and testimonies of people who have changed their lives with catalytic assistance are unmistakably powerful records of transformative, development interventions. When I think of development cooperation, it is all about people in the last instance who, when given a mandate, go far beyond it to establish genuine partnerships and durable institutions in the long haul. The tangible goals of a contract can be achieved and are easy to monitor and to present to the publics and auditing firms; but it is the agency of development practitioners that must always be valued as the engine that propels development goals with development values. A repetitive, monotonous defence of the need of countries to be responsible to the poor of the world is not what I suggest: hence the second part of the title, namely, ‘ambition’ needs to be retained.


The report is confused about a final call on the dialectic between regional-, country- and global-specific analyses of development presence and aid flows. After defending the need for a country-specific analysis as crucial, it returns to signalling regional and global analyses. I believe more work needs to be done on this issue of the universal and the particular. For example, it is not clear to me how the report arrives at the figure of ten countries. Its recommendations appear ahistorical and do not seem to be sufficiently well grounded in either statistical or political analysis.

The reduction of human distress and the betterment of people’s lives need a strong analysis of the forces that create conflict, deepen inequality, and force marginalized people to accept exploitation. Development cooperation and aid are closely linked both to the quantitative nature of persistent poverty as well as the qualitative understanding of that vulnerability. If countries can believe in trade and open their borders to economic exchanges for the benefit of societies and their citizens, why should serious development cooperation not look into the actions of governments, which have not only promoted but also encouraged and supported these inequalities? This report needs to recommend such openness in government so that development cooperation has a right to examine trade practices, regulate the Netherlands’ role in international affairs, etc. If there are no teeth to development-cooperation actors institutionally, the Netherlands will, in the end, minimize its role in the global public goods framework.

The failures of global governance institutions and national governments force development interventions to be always in the catching-up mode, undoing or mitigating the wrongs of nation-state politics. Rarely are representatives of civil-society organizations (CSOs) part of government-consultative processes or think tanks that have teeth. Tokenism is bad faith; we have a lot of it coming from governments in the case of CSOs. This is a global phenomenon. WRR should, therefore, dwell more seriously than it has on the role required of Dutch CSOs and their contributions to the global-public-goods debates. Calling for more professionalism is easy but meaningless. Many CSOs already have high standards of fiscal and social auditing, if people only cared to look for these.

Economic growth and social democracy: the rights discourse

The report underscores the need for economic growth but does not establish the need to locate economic growth in the wider democratic challenges of building a socially inclusive society. Indeed, for researchers like me, who are accustomed both to quantitative and qualitative methodologies, the active use of the rights discourse is a major challenge. It is a learning that takes us deep into the notions of dignity, emancipation and equality; and it borders continuously on the political, the existential, the material, and the non-tangible. The quality of democracy should not be measured by economic-growth criteria alone; such measures must look at the human condition in its entirety. Amartya Sen’s excellent essay on ‘Democracy as a Universal Value’ clearly demonstrates the need to step beyond the economy into the domain of rights. In his celebrated work on ‘Hunger and Public Action’, he suggested that the problem, during famines, arose not because of the shortage of food but from the lack of democracy and public action.

The major rights recognized in two covenants of 1966, namely the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the one on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, virtually span the tangible and intangible essence and material rights of human beings. It is important to retain these in discussions regarding the importance of economic growth. In international assistance, the development enterprise, when technical in nature, commands massive financial resources for the entire international community, whereas human rights, governance and institution-building at the grassroots level, all deeply political in nature, remained contested and marginalized. This needs to change, but it is not so easy, in international development assistance, given the issues of sovereignty of elected governments in countries and the need to respect their sovereignty. This is where the ratification of governments to the UN treaties comes to be of use. Ensuring compliance is part of reinforcing the global-public-goods framework. For this, international CSOs and social movements are well placed to work on these issues at the field level.

By the mid-1990s, development assistance had grown to US$50 billion a year; human-rights and governance communities received only 1% of these grants. Almost all the multilaterals drew their policy instruments from strategic, foreign-policy instruments of governments. This reduced considerably the potential of domestic national governments and CSOs to develop community-owned participatory futures.

Much debate has, therefore, arisen on issues of the generation of rights and their applicability to state and non-state actors, to corporations, and to other market leaders. For those who want seriously to pursue the issues of the responsibility and responsiveness of aid institutions to crises in society, spanning the economic, the political and the cultural, there are no simple, ready-made answers on how policy and its implementation should occur. It is clear that if international assistance would like to engage comprehensively and seriously in governance and civil society, there have to be long-term investments and full-hearted support from all the different departments of the concerned Ministries. Furthermore, there should be a well-defined policy that articulates the vision of the government and the instruments it draws upon to support development efforts.

The rights discourse, if fully endorsed and applied to different sectors, can significantly alter the quality of people’s participation in and engagement with civil society with state actors. (See Raghuram & Shobha, The MDGs in a World of Multiplying Inequalities and Differentiating Complexities, Development, 2008, 51, 241–244). Principles of good governance force us to stop the promotion of the idea of human beings as instruments of economic production, on unequal terms, or of the idea that those in power can be absolved from public audits of their performance. The reform of state, markets and civil society, so that we can have social change that is accountable, is a process that will ensure the implementation of the global-public-goods framework, both internationally and nationally.

The broad-basing of struggles for the eradication of poverty or for the strengthening of the civil and political rights of people, essential in the building of a nation, is everyone’s duty. It has to be included in the charters of organizations. The privatization of public goods carries on at its present pace only because of the ineffective mechanisms that people have to force a shift in policy. Under specialized governance and social justice programmes, it is possible to contribute to the advancement of an enlightened public, which pursues public action for distributive justice, and state responsiveness for the protection of people’s well-being. In international cooperation, this needs to be brought strongly into the reforms process (see Raghuram & Shobha Civil Society and Development Aid: The Politics of Responsible Engagement, Import–Export, A. Fitz , M. Kroger, and A. Schneider (eds), 2005, Berlin).

Diverse development civil society formations in the Netherlands

I have mentioned earlier that careful attention needs to be paid to the suggested restructuring of development assistance and the possible changes for Dutch international NGOs. I am not enamoured by the idea of the homogenisation of Dutch development assistance along the lines of USAID, DFID, etc. The US model of development assistance, with its high degree of self-interest and gruelling conditionalities, which have often left recipient countries fit only for unequal integration in global economies, is hardly worthy of emulation. (Who can forget the wave of conservatism that undermined the women’s movement during the Bush regime?) I will not say the same for independent American philanthropy, large and small, which has done good work. It would be very unfortunate if the Netherlands were to move towards a centralized model of development deliverance: ‘NLAID’ may sound good, but what does it mean for its constituencies? There is room for everyone, and the world needs diversity, choice, pluralistic approaches, and a clear understanding that one size does not fit all.

My suggestion is first to get the political and social world view right through public debates that include all agencies who have been working in the development sector. Only after such debates should we attempt to frame appropriate structural reforms. A consolidation of strengths will ensure that there will be long-term gains. In contrast, the same old wine in a new bottle may well be counterproductive. Foreign policies are domestic and insider reflections of the people we are. I have had the good fortune to meet many Dutch citizens in small communities, in academia, and in social-development organizations, and they have always remained real to me in their openness to understand and to engage with the other. These social exchanges have very little to do with funds. However, the corridors of governments often do not resonate with the voices of their citizens. The enlightened state must work towards a wider sense of just transactions but without loss of public agency.

In conclusion, a renewed internationalism is needed to strengthen public associations at the grassroots level. They remain in history as the voice and representation of the larger will, both domestically and internationally. This requires both state and non-state agencies to provide support for durable and sustainable institutional development that is autonomous, targeted and efficient. Development work at the field level often brings home the truth that people who live in distressed situations are not contestants for spaces and survival. They are authors of their destiny and we need to understand that the final visions about democracy will be forged by them. The highest levels of global partnerships must hold this as a core political value, and we need to know that we cannot turn back on those achievements of all these years that did much good in advancing ratified international agreements, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Kyoto Protocol. We need to move on to the next level in achieving global justice. Our own lived sense of justice must be part of this inclusive global order, not apart from it.

Author: Shobha Raghuram

About the author

Shobha Raghuram is an independent researcher who has specialised in development studies and philosophy.

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