Commentary

Aid Is Power. Of Course The BRICS Got In On The Act

At their summit on Wednesday of last week, the BRICS nations (or the “emerging economies” of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) announced the founding of a new international development bank. This new financial institution will, like the World Bank, provide funding for infrastructure projects throughout the developing world and, like the IMF, use reserves of various currencies to stave off financial crises.

The founding of this new bank is largely the result of the BRICS nations’ discontent with the often disproportionate power allotted to the US and European nations within the internal mechanism of the World Bank and IMF. At the moment, for instance, Brazil and Spain have similar voting shares within the IMF (which are officially determined based on the size of a given nation’s economy using figures like GDP), despite the fact that the Spanish economy is less than two-thirds the size of the Brazilian. Dr. Roslyn Fuller suggests, and  rightfully so, that this new bank is the inevitable manifestation of the West’s inability to adapt to the new multipolar world, or in her words, the result of its failure to turn at this crucial turning point in global relations.

Obviously, there is a deeply geopolitical element to the founding of this new BRIC development bank. In large part, like much in the arena of diplomacy, it is a matter of ego – an opportunity for the BRICS countries to declare independence from and comparable influence to the old bastions of power in Washington, D.C. [Ed: My old foreign policy professor would call it “symbolic politics”].

The India Times refers to the new bank as a “counter-weight” to the World Bank. Reuters’ story on the topic declares in its title that “BRICS set up bank to counter Western hold on global finances.” The LA Times writes that the new bank was founded with “aspirations to challenge the dominance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.”

This adversarial depiction of these two banks common to many media outlets the world over has likely left some of us development interns scratching our heads. After all, isn’t the fundamental goal of the World Bank to combat global poverty, not to preserve any uneven global power structures nor propagate US dominance? Shouldn’t this new bank be welcomed as a dearly needed partner and ally of the DC based financial institutions?

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim would most certainly agree. In a South China Morning Post article he is quoted as saying,

“For us, our competition is poverty. Our enemy is lack of economic growth…. We have no choice but to welcome any new entrants because every new entrant will help us battle poverty.”

Kim said he was eager to collaborate with this new bank in joint efforts to better aid the world’s poor.

Again we are faced with the problem of perceiving and interpreting the place of politics in development work. As William Easterly noted in his most recent book (echoing themes already present in works by James Ferguson and others prior), development organizations tend to mystify the deeply ideological roots of their policy prescriptions and the subsequent political effects of such policies in technocratic rhetoric and claims of impartiality. In such a way the World Bank, an organization with a policy history that mirrors the ideological trends of its American host (such that neoliberal structural adjustment reforms became popular during the Reagan era), can be depicted as an impartial organization advocating empirically proven  policies. Many development interns and practitioners seem to get lost in the technocratic rhetorical haze and forget, or completely ignore, the political elements of this line of work.

However, when the BRICS nations founded their new international bank the global media was able to perceive this move as one with deeply political roots and implications.

The ability to distribute aid is a mark of power; even more so, the ability to determine the ideological character and political directions of this aid. The media is not hailing the bank as a new contributor in the fight against the common scourge of poverty, but a diplomatically complex assertion of growing power and international influence among BRICS nations.

One must turn to President Kim to hear the politically sterile, familiar discourse of “the global confrontation of poverty.” While development organizations have often succeeded in their efforts to appear apolitical, here his remarks stand in contrast to a mass of geographically diverse journalists, making his apolitical representation of the World Bank seem – quite candidly – illusory.

Political jostling and diplomatic hissy fits aside, I am eager to see what will come of this new development bank.

As former World Bank economist (and Nobel prize winner) Joseph Stiglitz indicates in his appearance on Democracy Now, this new bank will only expand investment within the “developing world” and encourage further efforts to stimulate economic growth therein. With reserves of over 3 trillion its seems China’s greater participation (and that of the other BRICS) in the development industry is long over due, and a serious opportunity to better meet the needs of the world’s poorest.

Further, this new bank, which will likely pull from demographic and geographic circles underrepresented in Washington, will expand the development policy debate to include previously unheard voices (essentially the goal of development blogs like this one and Why Dev). The familiar danger of “group think” among policymakers can perhaps be staved off through the inclusion of these new diverse contributors (especially since a voice on the international stage tends to be loudest when its orator has full pockets).

Of course there are also new dangers. We must be wary, as with the World Bank, of hidden political rationales embedded in what I am sure will be the technocratically defended policy proposals of this new development bank. Their foreignness to Western observers makes them no less likely to fall into the typically western pitfall of propagating their own cultural hegemony and privileging their own ways of being, thinking, and prospering in their policies.

In short, this new bank is a bit of a mystery. Its institutional history is only about to begin. Here’s to hoping its better than that of the World Bank.

Hell, if nothing else, maybe they’ll even give me job. No one else seems to be interested. 

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Experiences

Getting Lost At The EU-Africa Summit

It is easy to forget that Brussels is the second most powerful city in the world. The smell of frites fill the air, policemen stroll down the streets puffing on cigarettes and tourists huddle around a statue of a tiny, peeing boy. It is an unkempt, slightly disorganised town, not quite the capital city home to the European Union, NATO and, of course, the Belgian government. Then Obama arrived, closely followed by Chinese Premier Xi Jingpao. A week later around sixty Heads of State from both Europe and Africa follow suit.

Within a matter of days, Brussels exploded into a flurry of policemen and barricades. No longer could you park, unticketed, five meters from the Commission building. Snipers lined the buildings outside of the Council and helicopters patrolled the skies day and night.

It was for the Fourth EU-Africa Summit that I had managed to slip out of Oxfam for a couple of days under the guise of a journalist working for the Europhilic online paper CaféBabel to cover this event. My first summit as an amateur journalist would be one which would bring together a bizarre mix democrats, kings, polygamists and bureaucrats in the name of “People, Prosperity and Peace”. This was an opportunity for the populists to say something outlandish, for the political nobodies to huddle with the elites and, at the end, extol a new era as “a partnership of equals”.

History has entwined the two continents, but despite Europe being by far the largest donor of foreign aid, the Summit arrived at a time of tension. Migration and failed trade talks represent two of the key disputes, as well as the older issue of human rights emerging with new crackdowns on LGBT communities. The EU refused to invite a representative from neither Western Sahara nor Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, contributing to Robert Mugabe’s boycotting of the event.

In the jungle of photographers at the VIP entrance, the president of Niger briefly stopped for the camera’s to say “Europe doesn’t care about Africa”.

Expecting further anti-colonial sentiments and heated table-thumping I  headed for the press zone where hundreds of journalists from the global media frantically typed on their computers and consumed copious amounts of coffee. I felt entirely lost, out of my depth. It quickly became apparent to me that, unless you are from high-brow media, you were doomed to watch from the sidelines. Despite frantic requests for interviews with anyone from the King of Swaziland to the President of Latvia, CaféBabel held no swing with their press officers.

My image of stumbling across a story quickly disappeared; this was a job for the BBC or AFP, not a blog with a readership entirely disinterested by African development. Instead, I saw this as an opportunity to learn a little bit more about a continent I know little more about than a few well-constructed Oxfam sound bites.

With this is mind, I wondered across a press briefing from Madagascar. Now this is a country I know nothing about. As I waited for the conference to start, I looked up a few things. Madagascar: unstable political structure, President who resembles Kim Jong-Un, national language French. The last point was disconcerting for me, but I stayed put. In came the President to a room of around seven journalists, surrounded by a few officers, and delivered his speech in a language I could not speak. He looked happy, so I smiled at him, but the other journalists – primarily from African press – were frowning, scribbling frantically on their pads. It later transpired that he was desperately trying to convince us that “rule of law” was being restored in his country.

Outside of the sporadic press conferences, the leaders spent most of their time huddled round conference tables reading statements on issues as broad as trade deals to gay rights, climate change to migration. Naturally my press credentials didn’t allow me access to this room, so like most of the journalists we sat in the press briefing room watching it on a big screen (without translation and streamed online). I think in my mind I imagined walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders, watching their discussions live; not on a TV next to a passed-out cameraman.

Disheartened, I went to a jargon-filled briefing on Europe’s imminent intervention in the Central African Republic; interesting, but uninspiring. I had no story, just a few quotes already broadcast and published online. With little to write about, I headed for the exit. But chance was on my side again as I stumbled in on another press conference; this time with Hollande and Merkel. It was genuinely exciting and the atmosphere was buzzing. It might be true that, for a first time journalist, a summit might not give much room for original thought, but as the two prominent heads of states entered the room, I realised that it didn’t matter. I was sitting in a room with some of media’s biggest European correspondents, watching the President of France and the Chancellor of Merkel deliver their vision on Africa’s future; it might not excite everyone, but it fascinated me.

 

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Fresh look

Developed and Developing: Time to start over?

As interns in the development arena, we constitute the “bottom rung” of a very large and diverse industry of practitioners, academics, and knowledgeable commentators and bloggers. A media hungry reader might stubble upon this blog and find him/herself wondering why thoughts from this lowly subterranean bottom rung are worth reading.

Well, you skeptical pragmatist you, what we offer here is an outsider’s look – authors with minds somewhat untamed and untarnished by industry assumptions.

Some might call that condition ignorance. I call it perspective.

Sure, we lack experience and expertise in many ways. But we also lack bad habits, excessive cynicism and the lazy thinking of familiarity. Based on that one can derive a rather grandiose mission statement for this humble blog [Ed. Play nice!] – question what others might have accepted. If we are indeed to give inquisition a fair shot, I suppose it is fitting that we start at square one:

Why is that we label nations as ‘developed’ and ‘developing?’ (or ‘under-developed’ or ‘less developed’)

These terms are the most basic of a complex vocabulary that constitutes our industry discourse, and yet with this first step, it seems we have already come into difficult territory

The term ‘developed’ has an air of completion. Its use of the past tense seems to indicate that we in the industrialized nations have crossed some theoretical finish line.

Additionally it gives undue credit to the process that got the industrial world where it is, as well as a certain authority to push that model off onto others. However, there are some serious weaknesses to the model that deserve recognition. If every ‘developing’ nation managed to cross the threshold and earn the ‘-ed,’ we would need another seven or so planets to provide the needed resources to sustain that sort of global affluence.

The term ‘developing’ on the other hand oozes influences of ‘modernization theory’. This is the idea that there is one road from poverty, a designated path that leads to prosperity. Often in the texts of academics and practitioners alike one will find comparison to 15th century England, Early 17th century Europe, or China Pre-1978 being applied to diverse regions with unique cultural and historic backgrounds.

It isn’t good enough.

While this critique of discourse may seem a bit overwrought that doesn’t change the fact that our terms are lacking. After all, Harry Truman first launched this lexicon of “the under-developed regions of the world” in his 1949 inauguration address. Keeping in mind that Western thinking at the time justified colonization across the globe, we may want to avoid considering the leaders of that paradigm our ‘founding fathers’. The Cold War’s contribution of ‘the third world’ (i.e. that which lies between the spheres of the US and capitalism and the USSR and communism) has improved our vocabulary very little, if at all.

As interns we have a unique capacity to evaluate this discourse. When a new term is introduced to you in your work and it seems a bit odd, consider the possibility that it is not solely because it is novel to your ears.

Keep your questions and maintain your suspicions.

Certainly you will have a limited capacity to alter this industry’s terminology and learning it may seem challenging enough. However, simply adapting to it perpetuates current flaws and stifles our collective imagination. So let’s think of some new terms.

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