What’s New in Development?

An edited version of this piece went up on the Guardian Development website yesterday, summarizing the latest round of horizon-scanning powerpoints:

How people understand and think about development is in a state of constant churn and upheaval. Some ideas are genuinely new, prompted by new technologies and ground-breaking political movements. Other ideas are old, previously discarded for reasons both bad and good, that resurface, often to be acclaimed as radically new; new concepts are pulled in from other disciplines such as medicine and physics, or from rich-world debates. Here are a few examples from recent months.

Firstly, something that may feel a bit retro, but that is definitely on the way back: the role of resource constraints in prompting violent spikes in food prices and a disastrous turnaround in global progress on ending hunger. Planetary boundaries on atmospheric space (how much CO2 we can produce without screwing the climate), water use, fertile soil, available energy and the like are starting to become much more serious constraints on economic activity.

If resources are limited, who gets what becomes much more pressing, and the danger is that poor people will be sent to the back of the queue, potentially undoing decades of progress on development. ‘Feeding the 9 billion’ reports are proliferating, but they often focus on technical solutions, ignoring the issues of power, politics and who gets what. In June Oxfam is launching a global campaign on precisely this issue.

Secondly, development types have long talked of the ‘North in the South’ – rich elites in poor countries – and the ‘South in the North’ – marginalised groups and rising inequality in the rich world. What we are now seeing is a much more comprehensive obliteration of the North-South distinction as a range of supposedly ‘Northern’ policy issues become more pressing in poor countries: aging populations, rapid urbanization; the role of domestic taxation rather than just aid in confronting poverty and inequality; the case for universal welfare states, guaranteeing healthcare, education and social protection; mental illness; disability and even obesity. On this last point, Mexico is the second most obese country on the planet after the US, and obesity and malnutrition coexist in many developing countries, bringing sharp rises in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Most traditional development organizations have struggled to address these topics either in their public messaging (can you imagine an Oxfam campaign on obesity?) or conceptually (for example ‘peasant romanticism’ and a focus on rural poverty remains deeply entrenched despite rapid urbanization). More generally, the ‘them and us’ mental frame, that poor people in poor countries have different lives, experiences and issues to those in the North, is proving hard to overcome.

Thirdly, the multipolar world is just as big a cliché in development circles as everywhere else. The rise of the BRICS and the relative decline of the West, epitomised by the marginalization of the EU at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, and accelerated by the two speed response to the global meltdown of 2008-9, have changed the landscape at an astonishing speed. We have barely begun to understand what such tectonic activity means.

The new world order will be one of networks and variable groupings, rather than fixed hierarchies like the G8. And aid agencies won’t like every aspect of what is generally a welcome redistribution of global power – the G20, the new top table, seems much more interested in growth than aid, for example. OK, it is ‘growth with adjectives,’ sustainable, resilient, inclusive, but will such words prove window dressing and will the world return to the disastrous delusions of Thatcher-Reagan ‘trickle down economics’? If so, expect inequality to leap and poverty reduction to stall.

Finally, the way we think about development, the concepts we use, is constantly evolving. Take theories of change. NGOs and others frequently call themselves ‘agents of change’, yet they invest remarkably little in honing their understanding of change processes and how to react to them. There is no Department of Change Studies’ we can turn to for help.

What kinds of change are predictable; which ones can we plan for? Which, like the Arab Spring, are entirely unpredictable and ‘emergent’ and how good are we at responding to those? In general aid agencies are better at understanding and responding to discontinuous change when it comes to natural disasters than political events – why is that? And is there an advocacy role for NGOs to play in these rapidly-changing societies?

Of course a focus on ‘what’s new’ runs the risk of ignoring ‘what isn’t new’, such as. the bread and butter issues of development: reducing poverty; supporting active citizens and their efforts to build effective, accountable states; fighting for universal health care, education, access to water and food; and equal rights for all women and men.

Contrary to the gloom of the aid pessimists, there has been genuine progress in many of these areas, as ‘Getting Better’, the new book by Charles Kenny, eloquently argues. The challenge for those engaged in aid, development and politics is to continue that effort, responding to what’s new, so that poverty and hunger in the coming decades rapidly go the way of slavery in the 19th Century.

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