The 2030 turn in German Development Policy – An Opportunity to Fundamentally Challenge Global Inequalities?

By Tanja Verena Matheis and Adrian Schlegel

Amidst the ongoing pandemic, the reorientation of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development with regard to international development policy and cooperation has gone almost unnoticed in the media. In the context of their “reform concept 2030”, the policy-makers identify five “megatrends” – demographic change, the shortage of natural resources, climate change, digitalization and interdependencies, and migration, based on which they suggest courses of action. The reform has attracted criticism, especially because of the cancellation of partnerships with countries with material precarity. Is the proposed strategy anywhere near allowing to address persistent socio-economic inequalities that the system of development cooperation claims to alleviate?

Clearly, courses of action are urgently needed. Global socio-economic inequality has hardly changed in the last decades. According to postcolonial and post-development analyses, this is no surprise considering the continuities of the centuries-long history of German and European colonial domination and exploitation, which is still largely unacknowledged. This perspective had struck us as young academics when discussing with renowned scholars and practitioners about how institutions of international development cooperation can acknowledge this historical injustice in their work. Following up on these inspiring conversations in spring 2019, we examined and collected various practical implications of criticism brought forward by representatives of postcolonial and post-development thought.

Acknowledging and tackling unequal structures in the global political economy

In our paper, we give 17 suggestions toward a more power sensible cooperation, ranging from reforms in development policy and cooperation to the transformation of the global trade system. In order to restore socio-economic equality, we need more equitable trade relationships to start with. This argument is reflected in our considerations, as well as in the ministry’s “reform concept 2030”, under point three, “facilitating fair trade”. The ministry’s new strategy explicitly mentions the role of global trade in causing “increasing inequalities, massive environmental damage, climate change, precarious working conditions and persistent human rights violations”

Especially with respect to global inequalities, there is a long way to go. Large corporations have concentrated their power at an unprecedented level since the time when the conglomerate Dutch East India Company held the reins of European trade between 1602 and 1730. To illustrate this, political scientists found that among the largest 100 revenue-generating entities in the world, i.e. nation states and corporations, 71 are corporations. The corporations in this ranking, ranging from Walmart to Nestlé, manage the world’s biggest and most complex supply chains for industry and consumer products.

If the goal is to move toward “fair trade” and address socio-economic inequalities as it is outlined in the ministry’s strategy, the public sector should acknowledge corporate power that emanates from corporations’ concentration of wealth and control of supply chains. In that respect, the current promotion of a “Supply Chain Act” by the Development Minister Gerd Müller can be considered a step in the right direction to achieve “fair trade”. The act’s leverage point is to hold businesses with headquarters in Germany accountable for human rights violations in their international supply chains. In other words, the focus is on the responsibility of powerful actors in the Global North to ensure safe and decent working conditions in the suppliers’ factories. In our paper, we fall in line with this perspective and underline the historical responsibility of the Global North.

The ongoing pandemic shows that such a legal framework is all the more imperative. Millions of workers lost their jobs in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and other countries as a result of apparel multinationals cancelling international orders due to a harsh decline in demand. In a response to this, the ministry promised to support textile workers in seven countries affected by the slowdown with 14.5 million euros. It’s a good sign but essentially a drop in the bucket, given the fact that most workers work extremely long hours on low pay and under weak social standards. A legal framework would be a first step in setting the preconditions for the alleviation of inequalities in economic relationships between the Global North and South.

Overcoming the coloniality in international cooperation

The previous example of global trade is indicative of the roots of inequalities. By increasingly tackling these unequal structures in the global political economy, German development policy arguably acknowledges the entanglements of Germany’s historically grown imperial mode of production, consumption, and redistribution. However, drawing on theoretical groundwork from postcolonial and post-development thought, the strategy misses to comprehensively address the colonial power structures inherent to its mode of cooperation.

“Development” as an idea of unilinear progress for which both the role-model and its crucial knowledge lies within the capitalist Global North persists. Neglecting the dominance of eurocentrism consequently enables a marginalisation of diverging ideas and practices of socio-ecological coexistence. What the Strategy 2030 thus misses, is to acknowledge that, beyond economic entanglements, hierarchies of knowledge also reproduce global inequalities.

Therefore, we deem it necessary to secure structures of self-determination for those who are affected by development interventions, while establishing stronger mechanisms to hold institutions of development cooperation accountable. This would also enable a two-way political strategy for development cooperation: facilitating a knowledge exchange which is jointly initiated and from which both sides learn. This can become real when the people shaping the organisational structures receive the institutional support to critically engage with the persisting power structures, such as racism. Future reform concepts must target more fundamental transformations of the mode of cooperation. Aiming to initiate furthering debates, our paper is one of many recent attempts that present practical suggestions for transition, see for instance this article, the volume “Postdevelopment in Practice”; or the newly established Global Partnership Network.

We draw the conclusion that, in order to achieve justice in trade and beyond, we need to find ways of “undeveloping the North”, as Schöneberg and Häckl put it in a recent contribution to this blog on the shortcomings of the Agenda 2030. “Undeveloping the North” in this case can mean to tell representatives of corporations off for their excessive monetary and political power, and for dictating the terms of global trade in a way that compromises social and ecological well-being. In the context of an international cooperation that aims at addressing systemic inequalities, a “Supply Chain Act” can be a first step in holding businesses accountable in their countries of origin, where jurisprudence and civil society can work together to prosecute violations and misconduct. Eventually such shifts within policies must go hand in hand with a larger transformation of cooperation as such: unlearning colonial mindsets and deconstructing the northern hegemony within institutional structures in order to collectively build more equitable, reciprocal ties in international cooperation.

Tanja Verena Matheis is a doctoral researcher at the chair “Management in the International Food Industry” at the Department of Organic Agricultural Sciences of Kassel University where she studies the governance of agricultural supply chains. She has worked and volunteered in education programs on development policy, focusing on colonial continuities in the global economy.

Adrian Schlegel studies Global Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the University of Pretoria and Humboldt University Berlin, focusing on decolonial perspectives on international cooperation and global climate politics, as well as critical pedagogy as a practice of socio-ecological transformation.

Image: Tanja Verena Matheis 2017: Workers in a textile factory in Bago province, Myanmar