What role do emerging powers play in the future of development cooperation?
In June 2012 the OECD Development Assistance Committee's Working Party on Aid Effectiveness (WP-EFF), established in 2003, met for the last time to confirm institutional arrangements for a Global Partnership agreed in late 2011 in Busan at the fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness.
There, 'partnership', hitherto a euphemism for bilateral aid relations of inequality and dependence, was discursively transformed into a horizontal and complex set of relations including not only traditional donors and aid recipients but also the rising powers (such as Brazil, India and China), the private sector, philanthropic foundations and civil society. The language of aid and aid effectiveness was replaced by 'development effectiveness', a term subject to so many possible interpretations that everyone could agree to the term, if not – as we shall see – to its content.
Emerging and submerging powers at Busan
Busan revealed this process of transition and realignment in microcosm, as players sought to position themselves on a new landscape of development cooperation. There is much to be learned from this, for in these moments of transition, the politics of 'imagined geographies' play a crucial role. In the preparations for Busan, and at the event itself, a new equator seemed to be drawn: between the North and the South.
The donor governments that have until now dominated Aidland are 'submerging powers'. In a context of financial crisis and severe cuts to public expenditure, many governments are responding to taxpayers' demands that aid budgets should be reduced. Meanwhile, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other rising powers, while in some cases still receiving aid, are expanding their 'South-South' cooperation and claiming a horizontal relationship with their 'development cooperation partners' based on egalitarian terms of mutual self-interest and autonomy.
This is depicted in sharp contrast to the vertical relationship of the old colonial powers with their erstwhile subjects, based on charity and dependency. These were the stark differences between South-South and North-South cooperation depicted at Busan, the former celebrated as characteristic of a new era in development cooperation, and the latter criticised. "Mercifully", one delegate remarked at the end of the conference, "even the word 'aid' will bite the dust".
From aid to development?
Such a simple distinction between North-South and South-South Cooperation, enshrined in the Busan outcome document, does not however reflect the unstable geographical identities found at Busan. Depending on the policy subject under discussion as well as with whom one was discussing it, a country or an organization's identity shifted, fractured and re-formed in respect to varying perceptions of its historic, cultural and economic geography. A wide variety of actors, from both geographical hemispheres, claimed the imagined geography of 'Southern'.
'The true achievement of the Busan HLF4 is the shift from talking about aid, to talking about development' tweeted OECD Secretary General, Angel Gurriá on the last day. But of what kind of development was he thinking? 'Development' carries multiple and contested meanings, as revealed through Busan's fractured geographies of political ideology and economic status. Many Southern government participants identified the South as prioritising economic growth and infrastructure, while the North were identified as more committed to the direct poverty reducing MDGs and to democratic governance through aid. However, the speeches of 'traditional donors' concerning the importance of the private sector revealed this was no longer the case. Development as 'economic growth' appeared to unite the fractured cultural and historical geographies as a goal to which all countries could and should aspire. The only dissenting voices to development as growth came from civil society participants who stressed development as social justice.
Post-Busan, there have been hasty efforts to clarify this picture. South-South cooperation is only supposed to be complementary to aid, as an African government official put it. It is not intended to replace it. A Chinese government official stated that South-South cooperation is 'very limited; it cannot play a pivotal role'. Both types are needed, concluded a delegate from the OECD. Yet the impressions given at Busan tell a different story, of a normative shift centred on a simple geographical distinction. The Busan Partnership reads more like the 2009 Nairobi consensus on South-South cooperation than the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, and leaves a get-out clause in Paragraph 2. Many at Busan sought to change their identity so that in thought and deed they could be imagined as part of the South – or East – even while others might locate them clearly in the North. If identity – the question of who is 'North' and who is 'South' – continues to dominate, we argue that future global negotiations on development co-operation will focus on who should agree to what, rather than on how best development outcomes might be achieved.
Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in IDS' Participation, Power and Social Change Team. Rosalind Eyben and Laura Savage's research on Busan will be published in the Journal for Development Studies.
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