It’s time for a new model of international development

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Richard Ghiasy
Richard Ghiasy

Associate Researcher in the China and Asia Security Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and Senior Fellow at Leiden University’s Asia Centre

Photo of This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.

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Since the founding of the ultimately ill-fated League of Nations in 1920, global governance has been dominated by a succession of supranational bodies, culminating in the foundation of the United Nations and the diverse Bretton Woods institutions at the end of the Second World War. These organisations have largely worked to ensure peace between the Western powers in the security sphere but also in finance and trade.  In a changing world, however, with the rise of new powers, it is imperative that the voices and needs of emerging nations are also adequately reflected. Given that 21st century global concerns focus far more than ever before on hybrid threats, human rights and the environment, is it time to draw a line under the past 99 years of global governance and look to re-evaluate and reform our established systems?

This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform, in which we ask the ‘unusual suspects’ to share their views on what reforms are necessary to make the rules-based order work for us all.

The leitmotif for international development should be more pragmatism, less ideology and geopolitics. Granted, international development can be a much welcome exertion. Though it is primarily rooted in improving living conditions in previously colonised countries, it moved beyond that category of countries many decades ago. The extent to which international development has become an inept, politicised mishmash is striking. Sadly, as the international order becomes more polarised, international development has become even more geopolitical. It is time for a more binding international agreement on international development practice.

Let us say you are chronically ill and suffer multiple ailments. Would you prefer medics to a) do their own thing without consulting each other or b) get together to discuss and synchronise holistically? The choice is obvious. Through the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals, the international community has found common ground and objectives. But by and large, international development continues to be bilateral and uncoordinated. The largest donors – mainly western European countries, the EU, the US, Japan and, increasingly, China and India – barely coordinate.

Their methodologies are often questionable, too. Take the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Bamyan, the capital of Bamyan province, had solar-powered roadside lamps lining only a part of the route to the local airport years before the city had a power grid. Such ‘logic’ also applies to regional development aid, as demonstrated in the Middle East and Central Asia.

In no case should development efforts be made without an exhaustive understanding of the country’s canvas

In Central Asia, the US, the EU, Russia, Japan, China and India barely coordinate their highly politicised development efforts. Rather, they push forward their own piecemeal geopolitical and geo-economic agendas resulting in push-and-pull dynamics. The region, like South Asia, remains astonishingly disconnected and mostly impoverished. Countries are not objects to experiment with at the expense of the well-being of millions of lives. Acting in bad faith, even if unintentionally, will instantly place perpetrators in the media and will linger in the recipients’ national psyche for decades to come.

In no case should development efforts be made without an exhaustive understanding of the country’s canvas. Before intervening, it is critical to understand what the local drivers of poverty and fragility are. A genuine two-way exchange of knowledge with local communities is a must. Each country’s history is unique: institutions, society and customs were formed over decades and centuries. Therefore, the emulation of preset models of governance warrants caution. Rather, the focus needs to be on civilian and production technology sharing, and sensible economic and social policies. After all, it was above all else sound and prudent policies, including women’s empowerment, that led to the high standard of living that developed economies have achieved. Not a specific ‘political system’.

Remember, most economically developed parts of the world – western Europe, the US, Japan, China and the Four Asian Tigers, to name a few – virtually all developed without aid and used protectionist policies. How on earth is a local infant enterprise otherwise going to compete with established all-powerful multinationals? All the successful economies also invested heavily in education, health, research and critical infrastructure. Therefore, the ‘yesterday’ rather than the ‘today’ of successful economies should be closely studied and applied to contemporary problems in aid-recipient countries.

Aid should restrain itself to a temporary nudge in the right direction

In the case of the most successful European states, the economic and social policies that they have had in place since the 19th century should be studied. Analyse Japan’s policies since the Meiji Restoration that started in 1868. More recent case studies include the policies of the four Asian Tigers and China over the last few decades. Rarely have economies been as effective in alleviating poverty as those of China, Japan and the Asian Tigers. Many in the policy establishment who were part of this alleviation miracle are still alive – tap their knowledge!

Certainly, new international development approaches may result in a hybrid of old and new, East and West. But if aid is sincere, then pragmatism should prevail over ideology. The leitmotif of international development should become more of a ‘consider what we did successfully’, rather than ‘do what we say’. Naturally, each canvas is different and variations in contemporary technological, institutional and socio-political circumstances need to be taken into account. Regardless, aid should restrain itself to a temporary nudge in the right direction. It should not act as a permanent lifeline.

Admittedly, it is not going to be easy to get the large development actors on the same page in both vision and practice. Sharing high-end civilian and production technologies is not going to be popular either. But continuing the current practice comes at the expense of the underprivileged. And, ultimately, at the expense of the donors.

After all, the world economy is not a zero-sum game in which one country’s gain is another’s loss, but rather a positive-sum opportunity. Even more so now that the predicted global population size is moving towards an astonishing near-ten billion by mid-century. The prospect of billions being in poverty is more of a security threat than the opportunity of billions in the new middle class.

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