What did trade campaigns achieve? Plus reinventing Robert Chambers & changing aid narratives: some Berlin conversations

March 24, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Had a really interesting couple of days in Berlin last week, at the invitation of the German government aid agency, GIZ. Also spent time with the impressive policy and campaigns wonks at Oxfam Germany. Here’s a few of the topics that came up.

  1. What did all that trade campaigning achieve?

From the late 90s to 2005, when I was working on economic policy for CAFOD, I watched Oxfam investing massively

Seattle 1999, a lot of fun, but what did we achieve?

Seattle 1999, a lot of fun, but what did we achieve?

in trade campaigns at the WTO and beyond. What did it achieve? We have a few impressions, but it would be great to go back, 10 years on, and do something more rigorous. Over Earl Grey in a cafe with an Oxfam colleague, we came up with:

  1. Shifting broad narratives, eg spreading the idea that the trade system is riddled with ‘rigged rules and double standards‘ that benefit the strong at the expense of the weak – things like investor-state disputes that give big corporations huge influence over governments, or the use of agricultural subsidies to protect Europe and North American agribusiness, and deprive developing country agriculture of potential markets.
  2. Preventing harm: eg helping developing countries defeat the EU’s attempts to shoehorn new issues (investment, competition policy) onto the agenda of the Doha Round in order to prise open new markets for their investors, and distract attention from their agriculture policies.
  3. Defending flexibility on policy space for developing countries on issues such as Access to Medicines/generics or patent systems on seeds (UPOV) or, more generally, special and differential treatment for developing countries

But otherwise the campaigns achieved very little positive change in what was a largely defensive exercise. And the danger is that now the campaigners have moved on to climate change, tax, or whatever, the forces of darkness will reassemble and carry on out of sight – the devil not only has the best tunes, he also has a lot more stamina.

How on earth would you go about testing any of this? Nice job for the new Oxfam influencing impact researcher, once we find her/him.

  1. A lot of the How Change Happens pitch is basically a call for aid agencies to listen to Robert Chambers. Robert didn’t win the battle first time around – why should this time be different?
time to listen to Robert?

time to listen to Robert?

Robert’s great work on participatory approaches, for example Rural Development: Putting the Last First (1983) did have considerable impact on how people understand development, but could not prevent the aid world’s slide into linear thinking, logframes, best practice etc. Some differences this time:

There is a weaker left, but also a weaker right, so more chance of a meeting in the middle. Robert was tapping into a larger, more organized current of progressive politics and ideas, but at a time when the broader political and economic tides were extremely hostile (Thatcher, Reagan, Friedman etc).

This time around the debate is less polarized. Large parts of the aid establishment are ready to acknowledge the failure of many traditional approaches. And in some ways, a lot of the thinking I have been reflecting on this blog is not actually that threatening/progressive – there are currents within the ‘Doing Development Differently’ work that clearly put effectiveness before social justice or redistribution. At worst, they can be about those in power getting better at imposing top-down institutional reforms that see civil society as the obstacle, and the people as passive beneficiaries, not part of the solution.

So I would say there is more chance of finding common ground, but maybe the politics of that new synthesis won’t be that radical.

  1. How has the broad narrative of aid changed? What is missing?

Reflecting on the current diversion of aid towards spending on refugees and counter-terrorism, one comment was ‘aid used to be about them, now it’s about us’. I think it’s more complicated than that

  • It started off being mainly about us – eg the Cold War and the use of aid to support allies
    Causes of death, global,

    Causes of death, global,

  • For about 10 years from the end of Communism to 9/11, it became more about them
  • Since then it has become more about us, in the sense of using aid to deal with threats to the West
  • But there has also been increasing attention to a ‚bigger us‘ in the shape of collective action problems/global public bads (climate change, tropical diseases)

What still hasn’t happened enough is:

Attention to common (rather than collective) problems, like tobacco, alcohol, mental illness, obesity, road traffic. All of these do far more damage than more typical ‘development issues’ like malaria, yet barely register on the radar as ‘development issues‘.

Learning from them – when do you ever hear of innovation in the South being adopted in the North? A few signs – mobile banking in East Africa, or the way campaigners on domestic violence in Canada adapted a methodology that originally came from Uganda, via South Asia. Any others?

Thanks to everyone in Berlin who took the time to chat – more please!