'The Donors’ Dilemma' - Transforming Development Aid

By Asuncion Lera St. Clair - 31 January 2014
Transforming Development Aid

This column by Asuncion St. Clair is part of Global Policy’s e-book, ‘The Donors’ Dilemma: Emergence, Convergence and the Future of Aid’, edited by Andy Sumner. Contributions from academics and practitioners will be serialised on Global Policy until the e-book’s release in the first quarter of 2014. Find out more here or join the debate on Twitter #GPfutureofaid.

In a recent commentary in the journal Nature, Robert Constanza and colleagues argue strongly for changing the way we measure progress. In light of the ecological crises posed by global environmental change, and especially climate change, gross domestic product (GDP) fails to measure environmental, social and equity considerations. This is the time, Constanza et al argue, for putting sustainable well-being on the agenda, sustainable both in the social and in the environmental sense. The critique of GDP as a measure of wellbeing is old. Arguments from development and critical social science highlighting the limits of GDP measures to address inequalities, multiple dimensions of poverty, environmental externalities or the global norms and regulations that prevent the poor benefiting from growth are well known. Indeed many of these arguments have been discussed in this blog already. That wellbeing must be environmentally sustainable is an obvious issue in the forging of the Post 2015 MDG regime and a center piece on the articulation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A debate now enriched by the participation and publications of natural scientists who realize their research arenas can no longer be disassociated with what happens in the developing world. But this debate, so far, scratches the surface.

Climate change is a game changer. Climate change impacts include more intense and frequent heat waves, rising sea levels, melting glaciers affecting river flows, changes in the onset of seasons and disease vectors, droughts and floods. These impacts threaten food production and political stability, and they are very likely to deepen poverty and roll back development achievements. Amongst others, impacts may also lead to the displacement of affected populations and fights over basic resources fueling conflict, more exposure to illness, and less preparedness to disasters. Climate is a threat multiplier. It will exacerbate existing poverty, create new vulnerabilities and new categories of poor people, deepen existing inequalities, threaten food security, and displace populations. That climate change already threatens development achievements was documented in the last IPCC Report in 2007 and is likely to be a major aspect of the forthcoming Working Group II contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report to be released 31 March 2014.

But the consequences in developing countries cannot be properly addressed by ‘mainstreaming’ climate impacts or adaptation strategies into a dominant framing of development that remains focused on increased GDP, blind to power relations, inequalities and environmental impacts, and that disassociates wealth production from poverty production. Development work and developing aid still presume advanced economies are already developed, and their tasks are primarily focused on transferring a notion of progress that is very far from a vision of sustainable wellbeing for all. Climate change makes development a global issue and enhances the existing reality of creating a new poor in non-poor countries.

It is not only that this ‘development’ or vision of progress has caused the climate change crisis, it keeps us locked into path dependent solutions that aim to address climate and environmental change through the same logic. Thus most climate solutions are market driven, disassociate climate impacts from other socio-economic stressors, ignore that all change has winners and losers, and continue to presume that we were on the path to a better world, with a changing climate appearing as a negative side effect. Indeed there is a synergetic yet malignant process at play, where the presumed causes of poverty in poor countries remain linked to the absence of economic growth while ignoring the poor in advanced economies or existing gross inequalities. Environmental damage also tends to be delinked to these same models of progress. At the same time, the existence of poverty serves as an excuse to continue with current development models that depend on carbon economies, presumably, to help the poor.

As much as I welcome the contributions of natural scientists to this debate, we risk glossing over accumulated knowledge of what does not work on the poverty and development front, the dichotomies created between good progress in advanced and less advanced economies, and the major transformations needed for a more inclusive and resilient future. It is very unlikely we will be able to transform development pathways towards sustainable and resilient growth unless major changes are made in the way we value the lives of others as well as ours, account for costs of production, consumption and waste, unpack the global and national regimes of regulations that enable wealth to polarize dramatically in the hands of a few, and unsettle the false disassociation between wealth and poverty.

Responding to climate change risks should lead to a major restructuring of the goals of development aid, both to prevent harm from impacts and to become a major contributor to mitigation in the north and the south. Setting new goals, likely to be applied only to so called developing countries, is not going to do the work of generating a major redistribution of risks and vulnerabilities, or the resources and opportunities needed to generate global public goods. These redistributions are needed, for example, to transform energy systems into sustainable ones. Indeed transitions to renewable energy requires massive private sector investments but also appropriate policy framings and incentives. Redistribution of resources, risks and opportunities are also needed for changing the way we value production, consumption and waste, and for technology transfers that do not pose the burden of intellectual property rights fees.

Socially and environmentally sustainable wellbeing requires creating global public goods that tap into the opportunities of, for example, enhanced food production in some regions while serving food security needs elsewhere; or social protection mechanisms to protect those exposed to climate related loss and damage. A new aid regime needs to emerge not only as part of the post MDGs debate but interlinked with the post 2015 Kyoto agreements. Communities of knowledge and practice in both climate and development must work together to assess new risks and vulnerabilities while seeking transformative pathways to distribute benefits and opportunities. Climate change makes the need for a new meaning of development a pressing reality, and no longer a normative argument made up by particular intellectual traditions. Indeed many have argued for a new aid regime under globalization, attuned to realities that were absent during the creation of the aid project after WWII. Simply put, climate change makes the need for a transformed aid regime urgent, in need to add a role for redistributing risks and opportunities as well as resources.



Asuncion St.Clair is Reasearch Director at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research-Oslo (CICERO).

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