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What does the end of North-South mean for the development sector?

October 28, 2010
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I spoke last night at an event in the House of Commons. It was held at Portcullis House, an architectural monstrosity next to Big Ben portcullis housewhich despite its name is a new bit, so no-one’s been executed there. Yet. The subject was a BS (blue skies) session on ‘Beyond the MDG Summit: What next for global poverty reduction?’

The thread of the discussion that most struck me was ‘the end of the South’. There seems to be a convergence between the old North and South at the level of economies, social indicators (see Hans Rosling on child mortality) but also of ideas. What are some of the implications?

First, it could energise thinking on development. At least in my bit of the development jungle, there is very little interaction between experts on social policy, politics etc in the UK/Europe/US and those working on similar issues in what we previously called ‘the South’. So if we were to lock them in a room together to cross-fertilize, they would be likely to come up with some very interesting ideas – importing Brazil’s Bolsa Familia scheme to New York could be just the start.

Second it presents us with a massive re-education challenge. How do we explain to the public that development is not the rolling out of some neat technocratic plan, but a messy, conflict-ridden and highly political process, and still retain their support for aid?

needs updating?

needs updating?

Third, all conversations lead to inequality. The ubiquitous Andy Sumner was presenting his paper (previously discussed here) showing that 75% of the world’s poor people now live in middle-income countries, so domestic arguments over distribution of income and assets and tax and spend will become increasingly central both in the old North and the old South.

Fourth, it means being less naïve about South-South processes. Yes there is sometimes a bit more solidarity than in the North-South equivalents, but there are also power struggles and the abuse of the weak by the strong. We can’t leave our political analysis at the door when talking about these.

One interesting area of divergence noted by the chair, Ann McKechin MP. While rich countries are seeing an anti-state backlash, most notably in the US, the development debate is moving towards recognizing and strengthening the role of the state in development.

Implications for official aid? Let’s not forget that plenty of the poorest countries still need outside help with investment in health, education, social protection, infrastructure and the like. And even middle income countries often need support when disasters strike. In general, there needs to be more emphasis on accountability, drivers of change and building political literacy among aid workers so that they can understand (and influence) domestic processes that lead to or block development. But a more political approach raises real difficulties in terms of being seen to be interfering in the sovereignty of developing countries.

And for activists? Don’t worry – a huge agenda remains in the shape of solidarity with struggles in developing countries and ‘Do No Harm’ closer to home (climate change, intellectual property rules, tax havens, bad migration laws, corporate corruption, the arms trade etc etc). Plus the impact of excessive northern consumption – MDGs for the top billion anyone?

For international NGOs like Oxfam, working on the ground in developing countries, it means giving much more weight to political skills and analysis, building links between programming and influencing in a so-called ‘one programme approach’ in which programmes/projects are designed as pilots to influence public policy – see this example from Vietnam. And an ever-greater emphasis on working with partners, and playing a facilitating role, e.g. bringing together private sector, civil society and the state, not least to avoid those accusations of political interference. Then there’s also the question of whether an old North-South mindset persists within some parts of the NGO movement, and needs a BRICs insurgency to rebalance internal power relations…….


  1. Hi Duncan. Nice post. If I could just indulge at some shameful self-publicity (!), at the OECD Development Centre we recently released a report called ‘Perspectives on Global Development 2010 – Shifting Wealth’,3343,en_2649_33959_45462088_1_1_1_1,00.html which expressly addresses the question of the ‘end of the south’ you are discussing here. Broadly speaking, we have an optimistic assessment of growing dynamism in the ‘south’ and what it means for poorer developing countries. For one thing, we are starting to get convergence (i.e. poorer economies are growing faster than richer ones) – that hasn’t happened for several decades. But ‘shifting wealth’ does imply new challenges for many developing countries. Among the many priorities, they need to:

    1. Exploit the power of peer learning – something we have much learned within the OECD over the last 50 years. Our organisation is based on the principles of soft power and mutual learning. We argue in our report that there is still enormous scope for applying peer-learning among developing countries themselves, and the cash-transfer programmes you cite is just one example (a particularly interesting one too, because it seems like the north is learning from the south – post-financial crisis, expect to see more of this in the future!)
    2. Although south-south linkages (trade, FDI, migration, etc.) have grown very fast over the last two decades, developing countries can do even more to harness the development potential of these flows. For instance, our report points to the fact that manufacturing tariffs are 7 times higher on south-south manufacturing trade than trade between the OECD countries. On imports such as capital goods (machinery), tariff peaks are especially high, and developing countries are sometimes ‘shooting themselves in the foot’ by imposing such high tariffs on growth-enhancing imports from other developing countries.
    3. Thirdly, as you say, all conversations lead to inequality. In line with Andy Sumner’s hypothesis, we argue that now that many developing countries have more financial resources than in the past, governments clearly need to put greater efforts into implementing pro-poor growth policies and establishing appropriate policies of social protection. It’s a domestic agenda here that primes, and relative poverty and inequality becomes much more important – after all that is the way we measure poverty in OECD countries, and we argue it is increasingly the way to look at poverty for developing countries, rather than put all the emphasis on the absolute dollar-a-day poverty line (which in any case is plagued with measurement problems).
    4. One thing you don’t mention, but that our report stresses, is the importance of technology transfer and national innovation strategies. One worrying trend in the global economy is a growing technological divide within the developing world. Some developing countries have made an impressive advance in terms of their technological capacities – particular Brazil, China and India while other developing countries risk being marginalized even further by these trends. In the 1960s and 70s the words ‘technology transfer’ were very much part of the vocabulary of international negotiations and discussions. But from the 1980s onwards the words got dropped and technological progress got gradually reduced to debates on how to protect Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs). Yet, on its own, IPR protection is clearly insufficient to produce technological advance. Perhaps we need to rethink this emphasis and look again at supporting poorer countries with the articulation of national innovation strategies? Some poor countries, such as Rwanda and its strategy to become the ICT hub of East Africa, acknowledge this. But they also need help from the North and, increasingly, from other developing countries.
    5. Finally, although important steps have been taken recently by international organizations to adapt their governance structures to the new circumstances described in shifting wealth, in the future these improvements in inclusiveness of the institutions of global governance will need to go further.

    Apologies for taking up so much space in your blog, but we thought these reflections might be a helpful addition to the debate!


    Andy Mold
    OECD Development Centre

  2. Thanks for posting about this debate. As well as getting policy wonks together from the old “north and south”, we should also “cross-fertilize the lived knowledge of people living in poverty in these countries to see what comes out in terms of ideas. This is something ATD Fourth World has strived to do in its work. I’m sure bringing together Bolsa Familia, Oportunidades and Child Tax Credit recipients could throw up with some great recommendations.

  3. Thank you for the excellent post; so much to think about. The comments that I keep coming back to is (3) that ‘all conversations lead to inequality’. Plus the comment that 75% of the poor live in middle income countries. And the current information in Canada about the vast number of homeless, now including families in ever increasing numbers. and (2), the ‘messiness of development’.

    As someone who went out to Africa in 1968 ‘to help’, and some 40 years later went to Zimbabwe where it looked like Ouagadougou in 1968…I am reminded of a friend’s comment, that our major problem is that we thought that whatever ‘good’ we did would last.

    Excellent post, excellent blog. Thank you.

  4. Mayor Bloomberg, after his visit to Mexico, tried a version of conditional cash transfer in NYC with foundation money know as NYC Family Rewards. The program was evaluated and despite some positive impact, abandoned after three years. For more, see Bosman, Julie. “City Will Stop Paying the Poor for Good Behavior”. NY Times, March 2010. Web. 5 April 2010

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