‘counterSpin’ on the Future of International Development
June 6, 2012
by JOSEPH K. INGRAM
The North-South Institute
In May 2012, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) held its two-day Annual Forum. This year’s forum was titled Changing Realities, Changing Roles and the Future of Canadian CSOs. To kick off the forum, CCIC held a ‘counterSpin’ panel on the future of Canadian aid and international development. The panel was hosted by Bob Carty, independent journalist and member of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. It was structured as a conversation between development experts, includingRichard Ssewakiryanga, Executive Director of the Uganda National NGO Forum, Kari Polanyi-Levitt, Professor Emeritus, McGill University, Gerd Schönwälder from theInternational Development Research Centre, and myself.
The panel discussion centered on major trends defining the landscape of international development today. The role of south-south development cooperation (SSDC) providers, such as Brazil, China and India, was discussed, with panelists divided on the extent to which they afford opportunities and challenges to development. Some panelists argued that increasing sources of ‘no strings attached’ (or at least fewer strings attached) development financing from SSDC providers means developing countries have more policy space. This was considered a good thing. Others expressed concern about whether the ‘no strings attached’ approach lowers the bar on international development co-operation standards on human rights and environmental sustainability, for example.
The role of the private sector in international development was an important issue raised by panelists. Richard Ssewakiryanga argued that the private sector – particularly firms from the North – is expanding in developing countries. This is changing the landscape of politics, economics and development , not necessarily for the better. Kari Polanyi-Levitt cited the growing power and concentration of financial and corporate capital in the North, highlighting that the question of transnational capital is on the agenda again, similar to discussions in the 1970s. She argued that to build resistance to growing corporate power there is a need to return to the literature of the 1960s and 1970s. This literature looked at issues of inequality in the development context, seeing equality not only as a question of social gain, but a condition for development.
I raised the provocative question of whether we are seeing the beginning of the end of the development agenda, at least as we have known it. We are moving into a new era where the real question will be how the global community can manage global public goods and mitigate “global public bads”, such as growing inequality, financial insecurity, and climate change a point also discussed by Gerd Schönwälder. The solutions to our domestic challenges will increasingly be found at the global level, with implications for multilateral development cooperation institutions. At the same time, official development assistance (ODA) saw a decline worldwide in 2011, yet has an important role to play, especially in lower-income countries which are now getting less and less of a shrinking pie. In the wake of Canada’s recent announcement that it would cut ODA spending, it is important to remember that Canada’s cuts are part of a broader global trend in declining aid spending across donors.
Panelists discussed Canada’s role in this changing international development context, and how defense, trade and investment, rather than development aid, are increasingly used as Canadian foreign policy tools. We also acknowledged that the Canadian public, for its part, has been very apathetic when it comes to aid and development issues, despite the fact that many recognize the importance of global poverty reduction. As one panelist put it, “the recent announcement of cuts to the aid budget was met with barely a whimper from the Canadian public and Canadian civil society organizations.”
We agreed that there is a need for civil society organizations and other like-minded groups to develop and communicate a new narrative on international development and its critical importance for a sustainable, stable future. We need to do a better job at public engagement on development and answer questions like: Why should development matter to the average Canadian? How do our actions and choices impact global development? What can Canadians do to positively contribute to global development? Why is making this positive contribution important for the well-being and prosperity of individuals, communities our country and our planet? We all acknowledged that the changing context for international development means that development issues are increasingly complex and interconnected including with domestic policy challenges. The trick for Canada’s development community will be to clearly and effectively communicate this reality. In doing so, we should be able to better engage with and garner support from the Canadian public for a strong Canadian role in international development.