Tuesday, July 3, 2007

all change in international development?

It has been quite a big week in the global world of international development. The body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued. Tens of thousands have died for entirely preventable reasons, such as malaria or resource-induced conflict. Yet these are not the reasons why it has been a big week, for these are the everyday 'facts' of international development: people building lives amidst extremely difficult conditions. No, the reasons why it has been a big week lie in Washington and in London. In Washington, Paul Wolfowitz stepped down at the World Bank, to be replaced by Robert Zoellick. Across the road, Rodrigo Rato said that he would step down as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund later in the year. Finally, in the UK the new prime minister, Gordon Brown, appointed Douglas Alexander as his new Minister for International Development. This latter change might not appear to be on the same scale as the other two, but it is, in my view, of similar significance.

The arrival of Zoellick at the Bank will signal a change in management style, but not a change in content. Zoellick has a lot of experience in international development issues, principally as US Trade Representative, a post that made him the lead US player in the earlier stages of the World Trade Organization's Doha Round. Zoellick had a famously conflictual relationship with Peter Mandelson, his EU equivalent, and was well know for diligently and aggressively fighting for US interests in WTO negotiations. As President of the World Bank, it can be expected that Zoellick will adopt a less confrontational style than Wolfowitz, and will try to build consensus. Having said that, though, it should be noted that Zoellick did have an abrasive reputation while in the Trade Representative's job. Part of that is perhaps a function of his intelligence--he is supposed to be a pretty bright guy.

Nonetheless, in terms of the 'meat and potatoes' of Bank policy, little will change. Wolfowitz's concern with 'governance' will continue, because it pre-dated him. An explicit anti-poverty agenda will be continued, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, based upon the use of 'inclusive globalization' as a means of facilitating development in those parts of the world that have been left behind; in practice, though, what this means is the ongoing building of global capitalism, and global capitalist relations of production, through Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers and similar devices. For the World Bank, irregardless of its President, global capitalism is the cure for underdevelopment, and not, at least in part, its source. It is this which divides the Bank from its (vast) array of heterodox critics. Zoellick's previous role, as US Trade Representative and as a senior member of Goldman Sachs, will not mean any fresh changes in Bank emphasis, as both of these roles were perfectly consistent with current Bank priorities and policies: building markets through liberalization, de-regulation and privatization. Those that are critical of the Bank, as I am, will therefore have reasons to continue to be critical of the Bank in light of Zoellick's appointment.

At the IMF, Rodrigo Rato surprised everyone by announcing that he was stepping down, for reasons that no one really understands. There were some rumours that he might be returning to Spanish politics; he himself said that he wanted to be able to focus more on his family's education, whatever that means. In any event, over the course of the next few months the Europeans will be searching for someone to present to the US Treasury as the acceptable face of global monetary orthodoxy. Judging by past experience, there are several European central bankers or former finance ministers that might be acceptable--Gerritt Zalm from the Netherlands comes to mind--but the candidate that does emerge will be little known outside specialist circles. As with Zoellick, we can expect the appointment of another faceless bureaucrat to a position of global importance that affects the daily lives of billions. It is an appointment that once again demonstrates the relentless capacity of the global North to ensure that its global development priorities remain at the forefront of international development.

In the UK, Douglas Alexander was appointed Minister of International Development, and was given expanded responsibilities for the Doha world trade negotiations. This appointment I found to be personally quite challenging. I have known Douglas Alexander for many years, although I have not seen him in a long time, and know him to be a person with a deep commitment to global social justice. However, I also know that as a Minister of the British Crown he will be constrained by government policy to continue the policies of the UK Department for International Development (DfID), policies that are at the very least complicit with the ongoing processes of neoliberal globalization which facilitate the immiserization of millions. Once again, we will witness the spectacle of a person of good intentions presiding over an organization that, with the power to do so much, serves to sustain global hierarchies of privilege.

DfID has the power to do so much because it expanded rapidly under the Labour governments of the past decade, and is now a major player in international development co-operation. DfID likes to see itself at part of the 'like-minded group' of northern European donors that promote market-friendly policies that nonetheless enhance people's capabilities to build sustainable livelihoods. However, its policies belie what it actually does. Too often it suggests that those who are poor simply need to do a different set of activities better, and that is the way out of their poverty. Too often, then, its policy prescriptions fail to recognize the centrality of global redistribution if poverty-elimination is to proceed. If DfID were to try and do what it said it wanted to do, it should try and bring together the like-minded group to reconfigure EU development co-operation. If this were to happen, the global hegemony of the Bank and the Fund could be seriously challenged by a development alternative, because collectively the EU and the like-minded group represent a significant chunk of global development assistance. This will not, though, happen; DfID will continue to work with the like-minded to try and reshape Bank policies from within, even though the power of the Bank lies at the level of the Board, which does not really feel the need to listen too much to the donors, even if they are, cumulatively, quite important. In trying to reshape the Bank from within, then, DfID will be complicit in policies whose outcomes are the very opposite of those to which it is explicitly committed. Contradictory indeed.

There is one other appointment, though, that should be mentioned, for within all this it offers a glimmer of hope. Mark Malloch Brown has been 'ennobled' and is now Minister for Africa in the UK. Whether Brown will be able to work within DfID's constraints will be interesting; when he was Under-Secretary General at the UN he certainly did not go along with a lot of UK government development policy, and his efforts at the United Nations Development Programme, the UN aid umbrella organization, suggests that he recognizes that a lot of the global development orthodoxy simply does not work. His appointment was a bold move for the UK to make, not least because there are many in the US administration that despise him, and it will be extremely interesting to see the extent to which Brown can or cannot reshape DfID to make it a more effective poverty-eradication operation. As always, one should be hopeful of the possibilities, but recognize the constraints, that limit both Douglas Alexander and Mark Malloch Brown to achieve what they would, no doubt, like to achieve.

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