2010 Popular Right

Popular Right and a new development discourse.

The elections in the Netherlands have led to a new centre right government with parliamentary support of the right wing freedom party of Geert Wilders. With a Clear xenophobic agenda he is setting new frameworks for international policies of the Dutch government. We see that influence also in development policies. In the cabinet no minister for development cooperation, the budget reduced from 0,8 GDP to 0,7 GDP, an ambition to change the DAC-criteria to make a larger part of peace-missions in developing countries eligible for ODA-funding, putting the contribution to the climate adaptation fund as part of 0,7 instead of additional.

With these changes in Dutch development policies a already longer existing trend has become politically visible, Over the last couple of years the undercurrent in Dutch society’s view on development had becoming more and more critical, not to say negative. Stories about bad managed projects, about misuse of development funds, about the salaries of directors of development NGO’s are more frequent than stories about the successes or the dilemma’s.

And culturally, development is increasingly seen as part of a cosmopolite elite in the society that embraces globalization (even if it is advocating for a more just and sustainable one) and is more connected to what is happening in New York, Nairobi or Bejing than to what happens in the neighborhoods of Dutch cities.  The argument that people in developing countries are victims of the financial and economic crisis falls on deaf ears: ordinary Dutch citizens feel themselves too victims of irresponsible financial institutions that are playing their games around the globe.

And on a deeper level, the changing world is questioning our identity as developed countries. For more than 500 years we were setting the standards on almost every domain in public life. We set the standards in technology, in military, in economics, in politics. The rest of the world had only to follow. Our supremacy was unchallenged and untested. With the shifting of power to the East and the South, with the rise of China and India and Brazil we are not sure whether we at a certain moment during this century are to follow others. And the sustainability issue (climate change, energy, raw materials, food) is questioning our lifestyle and the way that we are disproportionally consuming the natural assets of the world.

The combined impact of 9-11, the financial crisis and the rise of the emerging economies is really reshaping the landscape for international policies in general and for development policies specifically. Europe and North America are into a fundamental identity crisis regarding our position in the world. The tea-party in the US, the PVV in the Netherlands, Sarrazin in Germany, the plebiscite on minarets in Switzerland are – with different colors and nuances – all expressions of that feeling of a threatened identity and the longing to preserve the identity we had (or are constructing as a identity we had).

Historically the strongest pillar under the support for development cooperation has been the combined narrative of altruism and morality. That narrative was based on a self-perceived image as our countries as rich and therefore able to share with the poor far away. That was strengthened by the ethical obligation to do so. It is there that moral superiority linked with our political, economic and technological superiority.

That narrative is coming to an end: the rich / poor divide is no longer a clear north / south divide. The stories and pictures of the (super) rich in China, India, Brazil have created another image. And people are increasingly traveling to these countries and to Kenya, Costa Rica and Indonesia and are themselves seeing that there is no difference between  the shopping malls in Amsterdam or Cologne and the like in Nairobi or Djakarta. Of course they see also the poverty but the straightforward distinction between rich and poor as a North-South distinction is no longer valid.

What is needed is a new narrative that starts with the basic notion that we are in the same boat. Ingrid Kaul (in The Broker of …) put that under the title of ‘Collective self-interest’. In the world of collective selfinterest those who see their pensions reduced in the Netherlands share a common interest with those in Zambia who cannot get credit because of the financial crisis. Those in Germany who have to pay more for gasoline share an interest with Nigerians who a suffering from oil-spills. And farmers in the Netherlands have a common interests with small farmers in Brazil chased of their land by soy-agrobusiness.

And the narrative needs to decouple development from aid. Over the last forty years both have become synonymous as if development was impossible without aid. Aid will remain important over the next two decades as a catalyst for development and change, but the real actors of development are not depending on it.

Dutch development organizations (at least some of them) have not only to face budget-cuts. Perhaps their biggest challenge is to find a new story why they and their programs and projects matter.