Between terror and recession, nobody is talking about development anymore. If we want to fix the world, we need to think about aid again.
It was not that long ago that terms like “international development,” and “foreign aid” were common in the discourse on international relations. This was true not only at the United Nations, but also in many capitals, both great and small.
Today, development has become somewhat of an exotic.
Remember the would-be New International Economic Order? How about The North-South Summit in Cancun? Surely you recall The Rio Summit on Environment and Development? That meeting produced, among other things, a sweeping manifesto intended to guide development into the next century called Agenda 21.
It makes for interesting reading even now, almost two decades later.
I think it fair to say the international community, as it is so euphemistically known, has come up a bit short on its commitments. Indeed, the discussion of international development has pretty much disappeared from the mainstream in the wake of 9/11 and the launch of the Global War on Terror.
The price of that militarization has been steep: the emaciation of diplomatic alternatives, the hijacking of the post-Cold War peace dividend, and the reallocation of scarce public resources at the expense of vital social programs.
One of the less noticed impacts, however, has been the effective marginalization of development in the name of security. It is not so much that development itself has become “securitized,” as during the Cold War with the competition for hearts, minds, and client states. It has simply been shunted aside, a victim of “compassion fatigue” and competing priorities.
Not so for defence. The launching of the open-ended war on terror and its successors has put the military industrial complex back into business.
I have previously argued that security is not entirely a martial art. You can’t garrison against climate change, or call in an air strike on resource shortages. You can’t pay Blackwater to protect you from pandemic disease.
Among the many redeeming qualities of the human security doctrine is its insistence on the link between development and security. You won’t achieve stability without respect for basic rights, the rule of law, good governance, and, not least, freedom from want. Basic needs must be fulfilled before much else becomes possible.
Development, however, is not just about achieving various qualitative measures like economic growth or increased trade and investment flows. These may well figure in the overall development mix, but they don’t guarantee a decrease in poverty if the issue of distributive justice remains unaddressed.
Nor is development, popular opinion notwithstanding, about disaster relief or emergency humanitarian assistance. These are certainly required at times. But the beneficial effects of such interventions are often fleeting, and tend to give rise to lingering distortions, such as changes in diet or a debilitating reliance on charity.
At the end of the day, development is, in my view, about improving the quality of life for the majority of the population. It is finding ways to encourage circumstances that will afford each citizen opportunities, so that they might achieve their full potential.
Genuine development must be long term, equitable, and sustainable. It must be grass-roots and participatory, so that those affected are the subjects, and not objects, of their fate. This implies significant political and social components in any development strategy.
As with globalization, development is best thought of as a process rather than a condition or an end state.
In the midst of the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, official development assistance budgets are shrinking, overseas remittances are falling, and corporate philanthropy is drying up.
In a world in which so many have so little and so few have so much, one might expect more discussion and debate on all of this. Clearly, we will have to delve more deeply.