Development used to be a battle against deprivation and dependence. Nowadays it’s more about supporting the liberalisation of markets.
The Conservative party’s conversion to development in 2009, most evident in its support of higher aid spending, was seen by many campaigners as one of the development sector’s greatest successes. After years of being seen as a concern of Christians and the left, development had gone mainstream. Apart from a few Little Englanders on the far right, there was a broad consensus that we should fight global poverty.
But a closer look at One World Conservatism – “capitalism and development was Britain’s gift to the world. Today we have an opportunity to renew that gift by helping poor countries kick-start growth and development” – suggests that this victory was not all it seemed. For in equating it with the global expansion of capitalism under the British empire, the term development has clearly come to mean something quite different – indeed pretty much the opposite – to that which anti-poverty campaigners had worked for over several decades.
Back in the heyday of “development”, from the 1950s-1970s, the term had been closely associated with national liberation governments like those of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, which fought poverty, deprivation and dependence by using strong state intervention and provision.
Ugandan activist Yash Tandon went further, saying that development for him meant “people’s struggle for liberation from prevailing structures of domination and control over national policies and resources”. In other words, development was seen as a process of breaking with colonial exploitation and transferring power over resources from the first to the third world. For these activists, development represented a revolutionary struggle over the world resources.
The gutting of development of its political content wasn’t something that happened overnight. In the 1990s, after years of right-wing governments in the UK and US expressing the idea that poverty was an individual responsibility, and aid budgets slashed to historically low levels, some in the development sector actively embraced a new way of talking about what they were doing. The UN invented a new category of extreme poverty, denoting those who really deserved our attention, which separated the idea of poverty from inequality.
Campaign organisations pushed a technical “non-political” set of development policies addressing poverty at the micro level, by digging wells and supplying fertiliser, for example. These policies promised to lift the very poor out of their poverty so that they too could share in the wealth of the global economy.
From here, development quickly became a very different proposition. Because if the assumption is that more of the global economy will solve poverty, then developing countries needed to better embed neo-liberal policies. Aid was important because it meant using public money to facilitate the building the sort of liberalised market necessary for democracy and prosperity to flourish. Development became a chance for the political right to extend economic neo-liberalism into those parts of the world which other forms of intervention couldn’t reach.
Today we have arrived at the stage where development involves the UK spending aid money on private investments in gated communities in El Salvador, upmarket flats and a business hotel in Kenya, luxury beachfront homes in Mauritius. Or the World Bank funding five-star hotels in Ghana in conjunction with one of the world’s richest men. Even the mainstream of aid budgets today are used to foster better investment environments in Africa for the likes of Diageo, Coca-cola and SAB Miller, or private education in Pakistan.
Development, and fighting poverty, have been separated from any conception of politics or power; a fundamental misunderstanding of what poverty is. Poverty isn’t simply the difference between living on $1.20 and $1.40 a day. It’s about lacking power over those resources that you need to live a decent life – food, water, shelter, access to healthcare, education. If one person – or corporation – controls them, that means others don’t.
Today, in the wake of the financial crash, as those most responsible for the economic meltdown walked away, it seems clear that neoliberalism and globalisation has made a tiny proportion of people much better off, while the livelihoods of many others – not to mention the environment – has been eroded. Ironically, one of the areas of society most immune to this erosion is development, where neoliberalism still holds sway and has actually grown stronger.
This is why last week World Development Movement became Global Justice Now. We have taken this radical step to show how far the pendulum has swung. We have always maintained that poverty is deeply political. Despite what we’ve been repeatedly told by the political elite, you cannot get rid of poverty while a tiny minority enjoys wealth beyond imagination. In particular, the power that big business wields today is incompatible with a democratic society capable of solving the world’s problems.
Of course it’s true that sometimes people need immediate help – they can’t wait for a radical transformation. But unless we build that transformation into all of our work, the aid industry will not wither away but grow bigger and bigger. The work of democratic states will become the preserve of NGOs working with private companies. It’s time to take a stand against this ever rightward drift.
* Nick Dearden is head of Global Justice Now. Follow @nickdearden75 on Twitter.
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