Seven principles for making development policy fit for the 21st century

By Anna-Katharina Hornidge and Imme Scholz

The political and economic environment in which development policy operates has undergone radical changes since the emergence of this policy field in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, newly independent nation states made their first steps in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Many of them are now politically and economically established states.  According to the World Bank classification the number of middle-income countries now exceeds the number of low-income countries.

The bipolar order of the 1960s to 1980s has given way to a more complex, dynamic world. Besides the major economic and military powers – the US, China, Russia and the EU – the leading emerging economies and regional powers are also shaping economic and political relations and interdependencies. The possibilities of how the future of specific countries, regions and the planet at large might look like – in economic, social, environmental and cultural terms – are thus more diverse. Liberal societies organised along democratic lines and as market economies see themselves in competition with a multitude of different political regime types. At the same time, global challenges are increasing, as is the need to find common solutions that inevitably will require support by collective action, at global, regional and national levels.

Development Policy at a Crossroad

How can development policy and cooperation make significant contributions in a context where in many policy fields the need for international cooperation increases? There are two options and one non-option:

  • Development policy and cooperation maintains the narrow focus on poverty reduction and concentrates on support for least-developed countries and the bottom 40% of world society. Disaster relief and preparedness as well as emergency relief are likely to be added as poverty persists,, and risks will be more and more related to situations of conflict, war and fragility as well as to natural hazards and risks, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss.
  • Development policy and cooperation embraces the wider horizon of the 2030 Agenda and actively includes support for common solutions and collective action in most policy fields for sustainable development, as well as for the provision and protection of global public goods. This mandate would overcome the concept of graduation and include all countries willing to cooperate, acknowledging the urgency for effective cooperation towards COVID-19 recovery, the provision of universal social protection, protection of natural ecosystems and resources, the achievement of climate neutrality and a circular economy.
  • In addition we explicitly do not regard as an option the following: Development policy and cooperation sides with neither of the two options above but is integrated instead into the wider context of external policy fields, merged with foreign policy, environmental, economic and trade or defence policy and thus ceases to exist as standalone field and sector. In this case, policymaking based on the principle of transregional solidarity and cooperation on equal eye-level would be brought into direct competition with policymaking geared by the logics of diplomacy, security and economic gain. The result would be tensions between the different logics, a possible subordination of one under the other, and a likely reciprocal blockade. Fruitful coexistence of these differing logics instead requires independent policy fields and apparatuses whose everyday actions are at the same time closely linked to a joint goal: global sustainable development.

The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) was set up 60 years ago. Before its establishment, cooperation with newly independent countries was carried out in a decentralised manner by different ministries resulting in challenges regarding policy coherence, coordination and effectiveness in implementation. Today, with an increased necessity of international engagement in economic policy, environmental policy and health policy, to name just a few, challenges regarding coordination, coherence and effectiveness among ministries are on the rise again. Thus, a number of questions for Germany and its external policy fields arise which might as well apply to other counrtries: how can the competition between foreign, security, development, economic and climate policy that saps substantial amounts of energy be turned into a fruitful complementarity?

Our starting point is that a future model for (German) development policy should be geared towards promoting a sustainable future and founded on providing support and shaping partnerships that treat both sides as equals and afford them equal rights. We understand the fundamental function of development policy as providing cooperation instruments and funding that allow to tackle the local and global challenges for sustainable human development.

Development Policy as transformative structural policy for sustainable development

Partnerships are a fundamental instrument to fulfil this function. In the 21st century, characterised by (wo-)man-made existential risks and unintended consequences in the understanding of Ulrich Beck, and often summarised under the term of the ‘Anthropocene’, partnerships need to encompass countries of all income groups, including the OECD. They should neither be characterised by an attitude of helping, nor driven by the desire of averting threats. Instead, they should be focused on devising and pursuing socially, environmentally and economically sustainable concepts of desirable futures through a concerted effort. Partnerships, as we see them, build on human rights and, ideally, shared democratic and liberal values. They support the establishment of structures and standards for safeguarding the global common good and tackling global challenges, and they are aware of the implication of these ambitions for societal and economic processes of change.

Based on these reflections, we have identified seven principles for a debate on development policy reforms in the century (wo-)man-made risks, starting with the German example, and we would welcome comments and reactions from the broader development community:

  1. We see development policy as a transformative structural policy for sustainable development. Our social and economic systems will need a root-and-branch overhaul if we are to safeguard human existence within planetary boundaries. We need
    institutional, technological and economic infrastructures that can speed up the turn to a sustainable use of natural resources and to enabling everybody and all societies to flourish, to use a term by Amartya Sen for describing the purpose of human development.
  2. In the century of (wo-)man-made risks, development is a universal challenge that is not bound to specific geographical regions. It is centred on every human being’s right to self-determination. Societal and economic structures must be developed further such that self-determination, i.e., the emancipatory freedom to act, is possible for all, in particular for the bottom 40%. To promote such structural transformation effectively, Germany’s development cooperation will need to include low-income countries, middle-income countries, emerging economies and high-income countries alike.
  3. Development does not follow automatically from economic growth or reducing poverty. Instead, it emerges from processes of constructing and realising sustainable futures. In other words, development is not possible until absolute poverty has been eradicated and social, political, economic and cultural participation made possible.
  4. The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda and the German Sustainable Development Strategy offer guiding paths towards such sustainable futures. These policy agendas imply a cross-scalar, multi-sectoral mandate that spans internal and external policy fields. It can only be achieved through close collaboration between the various ministries and decision-making levels (local, regional, national, global) as well as with non-state actors from economy and society, supported by an effective governance architecture equipped with the necessary decision-making rights and resources.
  5. Futures differ depending on context and can only be achieved if they are envisioned and realised by local actors and their networks. Future is not enabled by externally set standards or support lent from outside. Thus, efforts of development policy are always cooperation on equal eye-level, treating both sides as equals and affording them equal rights – nothing more, nothing less. Cooperation enables a continuous exchange and dialogue to agree on shared values and conditions for a desirable future and for a transformation of existing structures.
  6. Policymaking for sustainable development and the global common good in the 21st century has to adopt a planetary perspective and foster dialogue with local communities on a transregional scale. The aim is to protect the global common
    good: by reducing inequalities and combating poverty, by achieving social peace and political participation, a climate-neutral economy that safeguards prosperity, healthy ecosystems, a stable climate, biodiversity and cultural diversity. The COVID-19 pandemic emphasizes the key political levers for this task which include: the creation of sustainable structures for the financial system, for digitalisation and the economy; establishing robust systems for social protection, food and healthcare; strengthening education, science, research and innovation development; establishing inclusive institutions for global social cohesion and for the promotion of rule-based regional and multilateral cooperation. Although development policy cannot operate all of these levers, it needs them and contributes to their effectiveness.
  7. We see development policy as a policy for developing and facilitating sustainable futures in the interest of the global common good. Such a policy invests into shaping multilateral standards and regulations and focuses squarely on multilateral cooperation, which is orchestrated and supported by bilateral and European cooperation.

Prof. Dr. Anna-Katharina Hornidge is Director of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwickungspolitik (DIE) and Professor for Global Sustainable Development at the University of Bonn.

Prof. Dr. Imme Scholz is Deputy Director of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).