Over the last few years, various authors have come to the conclusion that development cooperation is not doing what we expect it to do. All over the world poverty looks as incurable as ever and Western aid has even led to a number of well-documented perversities. How did we get to this? And does it make any sense to continue providing aid? Vredeseilanden tries to provide some answers and also gives its view about the future road for development cooperation.
Why are we so disappointed? Aren’t there figures that show that progress has been achieved in quite a number of areas?
The number of people who have to survive on less than one dollar per day has decreased considerably (from 33% to 20% of the global population, even though the absolute number has remained more or less the same because of the population growth). A number of diseases have been eliminated. Infant mortality has considerably decreased globally from 140 of every 1,000 children in their first year of life to 31 per 1,000. In poor countries average life expectancy has risen from 46 to 60 years. And according to the figures of the World Bank there are now far less poor countries, due to the global increase of the average per capita income from 5,400 dollar to 8,500 dollar. The feeling of disappointment probably stems from the observation that in spite of all the achievements, there are still approximately a billion of people who have not enough to eat and still one more billion who are not earning enough to live a decent life. How is that possible, after all the efforts and the results mentioned above?
Expectations running too high
First of all, we have expected too much from development aid. It is a silly idea to park an infinitely complex problem like (extreme) poverty in the box of development cooperation. Still that is what happened. Aid agencies and NGOs got to work with considerable budgets. But nevertheless those budgets have to be put into their proper perspective, in comparison to the often baleful impact that institutions like the IMF have had for development. Or of phenomena like financial crises, food and climate crises. But still: billions are billions.
From within their boxes all those organisations did what they were expected to do: set up projects and programmes. That worked quite well for eradicating certain diseases by means of vaccination programmes, but the approach is showing ever more shortcomings to start up a broader dynamics of economic and social development. That requires much more indeed: the spirit of entrepreneurs, properly functioning authorities, a coherent international policy, an active civil society, ... Those are all things that cannot be put into rigid long-range programmes in which every activity is planned for years in advance. All those things also require more than just money. Yet the idea that the problems can be solved by just spending more money is nearly ineradicable. Thus money becomes the major “success indicator”: how much did we spend this year? How many activities did we set up with that money? Without money you cannot do anything either of course, but money always is just a means. And as soon as the means gets more important than the end, phenomena like spending urge and donor logics take root in the aid institutions’ DNA.
The short-sighted view of aid
Secondly our disappointment about aid will not diminish as long as aid keeps focusing unilaterally on poverty reduction. It is indeed impossible to drastically reduce poverty within our current economic model. To be sure this model has brought about wealth for a large part of the world population – even though the inequality between developed and upcoming economies is growing – but at the same time it is depriving the backward part of the world population of the opportunity to achieve the same growth.
At the moment we globally consume every year one and a half time as many commodities and minerals as the earth is able to produce within that same period. In other words: we are already seriously using up the accumulated reserves of the earth. From this point of view development cooperation should certainly not give the 3 billion poor people the chance to climb the ladder – if it would ever be able to – for this would be disastrous for our wellbeing and that of the earth. The conclusion? The short-sighted interpretation of development aid as poverty reduction prevents us from seeing the real problem: an economic growth model that is about to explode.
Therefore the central question is not: how to fight poverty? The crucial question we have to answer is: how do we fulfil the right of every human being to develop into fully fledged world citizens within the limits of our scarce planet? This will require a global effort, from every country, from every man and woman. And development cooperation as an isolated box will not be able to bring about change all by itself.
Incubator for new solutions
To conclude that we cannot go on like this, is just one thing. Another thing is to come up with an alternative for a sustainable economy, which goes beyond the slogans. Yes, the answers lie in forms of ecologically, economically and socially sustainable cohabitation. But let us be sensible: we do not have such an alternative (yet), let alone that we have concrete paths to make the transition. How would we for example be able to provide 9 billion people with affordable food in the next decades? How should that food be produced with less water and less oil? And how will we deal with global warming, which is already causing crop failures today? Which technologies will we need for that? Do we have viable business models for farmers, processing enterprises and distribution companies that enable everybody to live on their work?
Similar fundamental questions do not only arise in the field of agriculture and food, but also with regard to mobility, housing, energy, ... To answer those questions we will require innovation on a unprecedented level and scale. It is like the first man on the moon, to the power of thousand. And the solutions can only emanate from the right match between governments, companies and organisations that can bring in expertise from society.
Therefore we think it would be good for development cooperation to evolve into a global laboratory. Not a machine producing gigantic projects, but a multitude of incubators in which premature concepts concerning agriculture, mobility, housing, etc. can develop. Many of them will come to nothing. Frustration is part of the package, for it requires perseverance to fail in a way that characterizes successful pioneers: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work”, said Thomas Edison.
The resources for those innovation processes must come from the private as well as from the public sector. We should consider this as forms of venture capital, at least partly financed out of the moneybox of today’s development cooperation. So we do not need more or less development cooperation. What we particularly need is more cooperation for sustainable development. Does this sound quite vague yet? Well yes, there are only few concrete solutions so far. Do not expect that there will be one and only solution. There are innumerable different circumstances all over the world and they will require work made to measure and hence an exponentially growing number of experiments. We are on unknown territory. In this context solidarity does not primarily consist in the financial transfers we make to developing countries, but in the concrete steps that bring our society closer to a sustainable economy.
NGOs: from project mongers to networkers
Which role will NGOs play in that vision? Today they are mainly playing the role that results from the ancient logic of development cooperation: spending money by setting up projects and programmes in the South. Drilling wells, building schools, setting up agricultural projects. You could call them project mongers. Fortunately more and more NGOs also have understood that it is necessary to adjust the policies by means of lobbying (development 2.0).
But in our view, NGOs will in the future only be able to keep their relevance as societal organisations by creeping out of the box of development cooperation. In the context of cooperation for sustainable development they can play a crucial role as playmakers between people and agencies trying to make their society more sustainable.
From an unselfish perspective they can adopt the role of networkers to forge mutual interests between governments, companies, universities and citizens. That will require NGOs that apply themselves to a certain domain (environment, agriculture, renewable energy, ...) and within that domain combine the specialized knowledge of the different parties into concrete experiments. Rather than intervening directly in the field in the South, it is important to look for like-minded organisations elsewhere in the world and to strengthen each other with the acquired experiences. Just like trade unions can best support other trade unions, NGOs can best network with NGOs dealing with the same topics, in another place and in a different context.
To use a worn-out phrase, we could say that NGOs have to reinvent themselves. And to expand on the metaphor of the incubator: they must act as midwives to facilitate the birth of new ideas. Not the financial transfer from North to South must come first, but the development of solutions that make prosperity for all available within the limits of our planet.
Are NGOs today ready to assume that role? The answer is predominantly negative. We are still mainly structured for the tasks we are expected to perform within the paradigm of the classic form of development cooperation.
What about Vredeseilanden?
What is the position of Vredeseilanden in this story? The honest answer is that we too are still too much centred on projects and programmes. But we grope, search and try to assume that new role. Our articles of association no longer talk about development cooperation but about international cooperation for sustainable development.
So on paper we have switched over. Now the practice has to follow. In the coming years we want to work in the box of changing development cooperation on the one hand, whereas on the other we will take up the societal role in the transition to sustainable societies. Companies and governments will also have to do that splits, so it will be necessary to pull each other out of the comfort zones by working together.
How will this work in practice? With our expertise we participate for example in the transition process concerning agriculture and food in Flanders (Belgium). We set out paths with collective caterers to reduce their ecological footprint by means of concrete interventions. We work together with supermarkets and processing firms in the food industry to make their supply chains green and inclusive, so that sustainable agriculture also pays off for male and female farmers.
In that way it is possible to gradually set up broader collaboration with authorities, universities, farmers’ organisations and companies to solve the problems of specific agricultural chains like rice, coffee, cocoa, ... We still encounter the same challenges as before, such as the need to strengthen farmers’ organisations, set up co-operative societies, train people. But by working on the basis of a shared vision and a specific market demand, there is a positive pressure on all stakeholders to go ahead with a speed that development cooperation could never reach on its own.
We often feel a bit uncomfortable, for there are few experiences we can rely on. If our organisation wants to continue to grow in this role, we will certainly have to make difficult choices. Modesty will be a true virtue for all the actors, but just as well we have no time to lack ambition.
Jelle Goossens, Communications officer