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Strategising development cooperation for the (rest of the) 2020s

Strategising development cooperation for the (rest of the) 2020s



This paper was written in June 2021, and published in Italian in January 2022 in Zupi, M (ed) ‘Next Cooperation. Rapporto 2021 sul futuro delle politiche di cooperazione allo sviluppo.’ CeSPI, Rome (here). The English version is here. Some key paras are below:


A moment of jeopardy for development cooperation

Development cooperation agencies will not, when the pandemic is over, be able to pick up as if nothing had changed. Of course not. The memory of over three million dead and the living reality of perhaps 150 million additional people reduced to absolute poverty will make that impossible. Policy-makers will not be able to forget the images of intensive care units overwhelmed with patients, or of families struggling to secure oxygen supplies.

But forward momentum is not guaranteed, and this is a moment of jeopardy. Development cooperation as an idea, as a ‘project’, may emerge from the pandemic in one of two ways.

. . . .

In search of a new narrative for development cooperation

In principle, development cooperation should continue to receive a boost from the extraordinary events of the past year and a half. The case for altruism as a driver of cooperation is, of course, unarguable. However, the pandemic has surely demonstrated the interdependence of economies and societies, and thus the importance of self-interest as an additional driver of international cooperation. Is there a political leader or member of the public who dissents from the view that ‘no-one is safe until everyone is safe’? In that respect, COVID has incentivised a commitment to global cooperation, which will transcend geopolitical rivalries. The argument can easily be extended to climate change and the loss of biodiversity. The rules-based international order may feel somewhat shaky, but the mutual benefit from cooperation has never felt more obvious.

. . . .

Where do donors go next?

Individual foreign ministries and development cooperation agencies will need to ask themselves what contribution they will make to an updated development cooperation architecture. All too often, when preparing a strategy paper, most attention is paid to the foresight section: the chapters at the beginning which offer a tour d’horizon of the world and development landscape. Much less attention is usually paid to the next sections, which should: provide a careful assessment of the institution’s strengths and weaknesses, in relation to others; set agency priorities; and commit to specific actions.

In other words, the key strategy question is not, or not only, ‘what should the world be doing differently on Monday morning?’, or ‘what should the development cooperation sector be doing differently on Monday morning?’, but rather, ‘what are we ourselves going to do differently on Monday morning?’. To focus on the first two questions and not the third is one way to fall into the trap of ‘bad strategy’.

To avoid the trap, a realistic assessment of strengths and weaknesses is central, note ‘in relation to others’. Drawing on literatures in economics and management, this can be thought of in different ways, as: comparative advantage; dynamic comparative advantage; competitive advantage; unique selling point; or distinctive competence. Research on comparative advantage in development cooperation has focused on . . . listed . . . ranging from technical competence to alignment with recipient priorities and mutual respect.

It is up to each individual donor to make its own assessment of the international landscape, to assess its own strengths and weaknesses, to set its own priorities, and to identify the specific commitments that will result from the strategy process.

. . . . .

Conclusion: making change happen

To conclude, there is a strong case to be made for re-launching development cooperation for the remaining 2020s – recognising mutual inter-dependence, as well as an altruistic commitment to ending poverty and inequality in the world, and building on the wealth of new ideas circulating about a ‘global reset’.

However, no-one should pretend that ‘ought’ translates automatically into ‘will’. Not everyone can see the writing on the wall. And even those who can, face conflicting demands and difficult choices.

In these circumstances, it is important to understand how policy can be shaped, globally, regionally and nationally. In the policy world, change happens when three things come together. The first is leadership. The second is civil society action. And the third is the power of a good idea. Civil society, in particular, can be a powerful agent of change, ‘dancing with the system’, as Duncan Green describes. 

These three circles are inter-connected. Leaders are more likely to commit when they are personally inspired by good ideas, and when they can see political support. Civil society can thrive in a collaboration with researchers. And the pressure to be practical and useful can drive better research.

A step towards closer collaboration is a shared mission around which different interests can coalesce. One such might be the idea of transforming debate about a ‘green deal’ or a ‘green new deal’ into one which is genuinely global. The EUEuropean Union has developed an action plan for its Green Deal, most of which is concerned with domestic policy and with the spending of funds allocated to the Next Generation EUEuropean Union Recovery Plan. Would it be possible for researchers, civil society activists and policy-makers to agree on the outlines of a Global Green New Deal? And then turn it into reality?

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