The social and developmental changes that have occurred over the past 70 years are nothing less than remarkable. Almost every metric of human development – from the percentage of people living in abject poverty and life expectancy, to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and infant mortality rates – has seen a significant improvement during this period even as the global population surged. A major factor in realising these developmental gains should undeniably be attributed to international development cooperation, ranging from scientific exchange to creating better conditions for foreign investment.
Bearing in mind the complex politics surrounding development, the power and wealth differential that often exists between providers (donors) and partners (recipients), and the various interests behind development cooperation, the fact that governments, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), private donors, and development agencies can come together to enact meaningful change should rightly be considered a feat of human ingenuity and collaboration. Added to this is the fact that international development is such a relatively new endeavour. While the act of helping the poor is hardly a modern concept, doing so in such a systematic way civilly (if not contentiously) while involving so many actors and impacting so many peoples across the globe stands as a testament to the power and vibrancy of international development cooperation.
Upon a closer, more critical inspection of how international development cooperation has changed over time, it is necessary to separate the overall gains and achievements such cooperation has produced from how it manifests within development agencies and among delegates in conference rooms. Conducting an independent examination of process (i.e., international development cooperation) and outcomes (e.g., poverty alleviation, disease control, etc.) yields conflicting results, even as international development cooperation has arguably advanced significantly since its inception in the late 1940s and 1950s. The very paradigm(s) behind international development cooperation have also been refined in the ensuing decades, often in a way that is more equitable and inclusive towards partner countries. International development cooperation no longer adheres to the simplistic divides of North-South cooperation, especially when considering the growth of South-South cooperation partnerships, triangular cooperation schemes, and public-private partnerships that leverage globalised economic frameworks and internationally respected norms, rules, laws, and regulations.
As the 2002 Monterrey Consensus and the Four High Level Forums on Aid Effectiveness demonstrate, it is clear that partner countries are increasingly taking a more proactive and self-empowered approach to how they engage in international development cooperation. Furthermore, the 2015 Paris Climate Accords as well as the formulation and adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the subsequent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) underscore just how much international development cooperation has advanced, particularly by becoming more multi-stakeholder as well as juggling myriad interests and ultimately creating a framework that almost every institution is willing to support either in practice or lip service.
Without such advancement, landmark achievements such as but certainly not limited to banning fluorocarbons to protect the ozone layer, halting acid rain, eradicating smallpox, drastically reducing violent interstate conflict, protecting the Arctic and Antarctic, enacting controls on nuclear weapons testing and proliferation, and developing rules and norms that govern cross-border and international activities ranging from air travel to the use of space would simply not have been possible. In this sense, it seems evident that international development cooperation as a process is advancing in a gradual but constructive and inclusive way.
What I am not convinced of, however, is the sustainability and holistic nature the efforts and outcomes of international development cooperation produce in the long-term. For a key example, look no further than the insidious spectre of climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement was a landmark outcome for international development cooperation, one that elevated climate change back to the top of the global political agenda. Yet, when examining the outcomes, the Paris Agreement is nowhere near as effective as it needs to be, and current climate pledges will not be enough to stop severe warming – particularly when most governments refuse to meaningfully curb fossil fuel production.
Even though reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century is technically possible and some countries are meeting their targets, the world as a whole is not on track to meet the goals set out as emissions continue to rise. Moreover, extreme weather patterns, which climate change is intensifying, are raising the risk of a global food crisis where “multiple ‘breadbaskets’ could fail at the same time.” Added to this is the likelihood that climate change will drive one of the largest refugee crisis in history – a phenomenon whose effects are already being felt across communities in Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and South Asia, which will, according to Brookings, “test the limits of national and global governance as well as international cooperation.”
Thus, while it is encouraging to see that global development mechanisms and processes seem to be evolving to meet ever growing needs and competing interests, the outcomes produced and the pace of change are simply not enough. Climate change, as a global and interconnected existential risk, is one of the most daunting challenges in particular, one that developed economies (mainly in the Global North) have and continue to exacerbate more than developing ones – particularly in places with the highest development levels and per-capita income, such as Scandinavia.
Not only has the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned that climate change “threatens the future of human rights, and risks undoing the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction,” but it is entirely possible that the gains we have made as a species – no doubt due to international development cooperation – may only be relevant and beneficial to one, two, or potentially three generations. This goes well beyond hypothetical forecasting; the efforts to alleviate global poverty provide a case study in why the lack of sustainable outcomes is so problematic for international development cooperation and the very notion of positive social progress itself.
Poverty alleviation as a case study
Ending poverty around the world underpinned the genesis of international development cooperation in the post-World War II era. Today, many of the major international development aid agencies such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) uphold the endeavour to eradicate poverty as a central pillar of their respective missions. Poverty is a relative term that manifests differently from country-to-country and from context-to-context, such as between urban and rural areas or between genders. What is also apparent is that even after more than 70 years of international development cooperation, and billions spent on eradicating poverty, major inequalities persist or continue to worsen especially as it relates to hunger, one of the most poignant indicators of poverty. For example, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “More than 820 million people did not have enough to eat in 2018. Almost all those hungry people live in developing regions. Hunger has [also] been increasing in many countries, in particular in middle-income countries, where economic growth is lagging. For decades, the number of hungry people was in decline, but this is no longer the case.”Print