What does the end of North-South mean for the development sector?

October 28, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

I spoke last night at an event in the House of Commons. It was held at Portcullis House, an architectural monstrosity next to Big Ben portcullis housewhich despite its name is a new bit, so no-one’s been executed there. Yet. The subject was a BS (blue skies) session on ‘Beyond the MDG Summit: What next for global poverty reduction?’

The thread of the discussion that most struck me was ‘the end of the South’. There seems to be a convergence between the old North and South at the level of economies, social indicators (see Hans Rosling on child mortality) but also of ideas. What are some of the implications?

First, it could energise thinking on development. At least in my bit of the development jungle, there is very little interaction between experts on social policy, politics etc in the UK/Europe/US and those working on similar issues in what we previously called ‘the South’. So if we were to lock them in a room together to cross-fertilize, they would be likely to come up with some very interesting ideas – importing Brazil’s Bolsa Familia scheme to New York could be just the start.

Second it presents us with a massive re-education challenge. How do we explain to the public that development is not the rolling out of some neat technocratic plan, but a messy, conflict-ridden and highly political process, and still retain their support for aid?

needs updating?

needs updating?

Third, all conversations lead to inequality. The ubiquitous Andy Sumner was presenting his paper (previously discussed here) showing that 75% of the world’s poor people now live in middle-income countries, so domestic arguments over distribution of income and assets and tax and spend will become increasingly central both in the old North and the old South.

Fourth, it means being less naïve about South-South processes. Yes there is sometimes a bit more solidarity than in the North-South equivalents, but there are also power struggles and the abuse of the weak by the strong. We can’t leave our political analysis at the door when talking about these.

One interesting area of divergence noted by the chair, Ann McKechin MP. While rich countries are seeing an anti-state backlash, most notably in the US, the development debate is moving towards recognizing and strengthening the role of the state in development.

Implications for official aid? Let’s not forget that plenty of the poorest countries still need outside help with investment in health, education, social protection, infrastructure and the like. And even middle income countries often need support when disasters strike. In general, there needs to be more emphasis on accountability, drivers of change and building political literacy among aid workers so that they can understand (and influence) domestic processes that lead to or block development. But a more political approach raises real difficulties in terms of being seen to be interfering in the sovereignty of developing countries.

And for activists? Don’t worry – a huge agenda remains in the shape of solidarity with struggles in developing countries and ‘Do No Harm’ closer to home (climate change, intellectual property rules, tax havens, bad migration laws, corporate corruption, the arms trade etc etc). Plus the impact of excessive northern consumption – MDGs for the top billion anyone?

For international NGOs like Oxfam, working on the ground in developing countries, it means giving much more weight to political skills and analysis, building links between programming and influencing in a so-called ‘one programme approach’ in which programmes/projects are designed as pilots to influence public policy – see this example from Vietnam. And an ever-greater emphasis on working with partners, and playing a facilitating role, e.g. bringing together private sector, civil society and the state, not least to avoid those accusations of political interference. Then there’s also the question of whether an old North-South mindset persists within some parts of the NGO movement, and needs a BRICs insurgency to rebalance internal power relations…….

October 28, 2010
Duncan Green