An American thinktank in London – development BS (blue-sky) session with the new CGD Europe

October 10, 2011 4 By admin

I attended the informal unveiling of Owen Barder (right) as CGD’s new Mr Europe last week. The Center for Global Development is a Owen Barder CGDtop US thinktank (plus some occasionally unhinged health people), and its boss and ubernetworker Nancy Birdsall flew in to cut the ribbon. It was all very pleasant – top notch sandwiches in a swanky old building that used to belong to MI6’s ‘Section 1’ that bugged the Soviets. We discovered this because they attempted to recruit Owen there in his student days. He says he rebuffed them, but it could just be a clever double bluff…….

Sandwiches munched, we sat round a table and did the Friday afternoon blue sky thing, chewing over potential roles and collaborations for CGD Europe. CGD’s niche is focussing on the roles and responsibilities of the rich and powerful (nations and increasingly, companies).

Some highlights:

Owen set out three areas of possible work: illicit financial flows, Brussels institutions and bridging the European-US divide on Climate Change.

Other topics discussed included rich country responsibility for the mayhem of the drugs trade, the need for a lot more work on inequality and redistribution (I even found myself defending the World Bank for the recent WDR…), and tackling land grabs.

Frances Stewart made a powerful pitch for reframing the debate in terms of common challenges (inequality, climate change, the destructive impact of the hyper-rich) rather than the ‘us-them’ framing of traditional development debates.

Andrew Rogerson drew a nice distinction between weakest link problems and posse problems. Weakest link problems are those that require unanimity for a solution (eg eradicating polio or any Eurozone parliament rejecting the Greek bailout and bringing the whole thing down), whereas posse problems mean a ‘coalition of the willing’ can make progress without unanimity (eg improving the quantity or quality of aid).

I tried to earn my sandwich by throwing in a few ideas:

Expanding into Europe right now looks pretty strange – rats jumping on board sinking ships etc – but maybe CGD could lead in thinking through the development impacts of a major Eurozone crash?

As NGOs we are increasingly banging up against enormous systemic issues that, to be honest, can seem a bit beyond us. Definancialization of the global economy; the compatibility or otherwise of growth and resource constraints – that kind of thing. Could CGD play a role in getting such paradigmatic discussions under way?

I’m not a big fan of the CGD’s flagship Commitment to Development Index, because it’s so top down (sages in Washington judging rich country governments). Why not introduce at least an element of bottom up – ask developing country governments to anonymously rank the rich countries for their performance on aid, trade, investment, multilateralism etc etc?

after-peer-reviewExploring ‘no regrets/black box’ solutions to problems that we don’t really understand. For example, can we devise a response to financial speculation that will work if it does indeed drive food price volatility, but won’t do any harm if our diagnosis is wrong, as some claim? See Ruth Kelly’s recent post on speculation, but I suspect there are many such issues, eg on climate change, where we don’t have the luxury of waiting til we fully understand the problem before having to take action.

I also pushed (rode?) a couple of hobby horses familiar to diligent readers of this blog

– making more of the lessons of history from now developed countries in terms of the kinds of policies and institutions (legal, social policy, redistribution, migration, urbanisation) they used when they were taking off

– Coming up with some MDGs for the top billion (if only to liven up what could be a truly awful data-head debate on what comes after the 2015 MDG deadline).

It feels very good (and natural) to have CGD in town. Looking forward to lots more sessions like this one (both the sandwiches and the ideas).