Why we need a Minister of Global Affairs
Thomas Vervisch (Ghent University) fears an opportunity was missed in the distribution of ministerial posts in the new Belgian government: where is our Minister of Global Affairs instead of Development Cooperation? That would be a sign that our country and its policies are evolving from a neo-colonial to a global approach.
Covid-19 is a striking example of the only borders that still matter: those of our planet. But globalisation has been around for a while. If we look back far enough, globalisation and migration are essential parts of our evolutionary history. We are all descendants of a group of people who left Africa in search of a better life.
The difference with today is that in the meantime borders have been drawn. And these borders have acquired a magical status: which side of the border you live on often makes a world of difference. But not for covid-19: the virus does not stop at borders. It was Lorenz who used the metaphor of the butterfly effect to illustrate the importance of small changes: or how a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas. The comparison with today is easy: ‘patient zero’ is the butterfly that claimed more than 1,000,000 victims in less than six months. Conclusion: on our planet everything is connected to everything else.
Long live the revolution!
But our planet has been a garden full of butterflies for some time now. Covid-19 is only the latest example. Other examples are climate change, the financial crisis, or 9/11 that started the global war on terror. And here too we can go back a long way: globalisation begins with interpersonal dependence, and this actually emerged on a larger scale with the Neolithic revolution. Some 12,000 years ago, we all became farmers, lived sedentary lives, cities developed, and specialisation took place. As a consequence: people needed each other even more than before to survive.
It was not until the 18th century that a second major revolution took place. With the Industrial Revolution the production and consumption of goods took an exponential leap. But this could only be achieved by hard labour and extraction of natural resources on a global scale. In other words: without colonisation and slavery there would be no Industrial Revolution. Both ensured that “The West” could make that incredible leap forward, but at the expense of “The Rest”.
Finally, in the previous century, a third revolution transformed our industrial society into a digital one. But the raw materials for this digital economy still largely come from our ex-colonies. And the slaves? They have been replaced by low-wage workers who enable companies to make high profits, while we can maintain our consumption at a reasonable price. In any case, we should be aware that since the Industrial Revolution we pay a price for our progress that is not fairly distributed around the world: “The West” gets the benefits, the Global South bears the burden.
A footnote in history?
But what about our Minister of Development Cooperation? The advantage of a broader historical framework is that we can put things in perspective. It is likely that in the near future, development cooperation will be dismissed as a footnote in history, perhaps even as the last phase of the colonial period. It has its origins in that colonial mission of civilisation and has, to this day, been built upon the idea of social engineering of human being and society.
In this sense, it was and still is the ideal playground for our Enlightenment ideals: we take a ‘developing country’, we add a drop of democracy, a pinch of human rights and a spoonful of free market, give it a good shake and there you have a new society. Meanwhile we know better: social engineering is not as easy as we thought. This does not mean that the Enlightenment ideals themselves are not valid: we like to have more democracy, but the way in which this is achieved is not obvious.
But what should be done? Various options have already been suggested: from abolishing the European Commissioner for Development to repaying our historic debt (reparations). Others suggest replacing development cooperation by international justice or solidarity. Still others critically reflect on the SDG agenda. I would like to add a concrete suggestion: a Belgian Minister of ‘Global Affairs’.
A Belgian Minister of Global Affairs
First of all, I would like to make an efficiency gain: the Minister of Global Affairs should not be monitoring the 231 indicators to assure the Belgian contribution to the realisation of the 17 SDGs. My suggestion is to replace this technocracy by one ethical principle: the harm principle as it was proposed by John Stuart Mill in 1859. Mill used this principle to safeguard individual freedom: the state may only restrict our freedom if we abuse it to harm others. If you translate this principle to our planetary boundaries, our freedom harms far more than we think. As already mentioned, since the Industrial Revolution the costs and benefits of our progress have not been equally distributed around the world. The unequal distribution of corona vaccines is the latest example that makes this again painfully clear.
Therefore, we must focus first on our own behaviour and take responsibility for it. But Belgian development policy – both from government and civil society – still starts too much from an aid reflex: a financial transfer from North to South to pay off our historic debt. This concerns the famous 0.7% of our Gross National Income (GNI) that has been a target since the 70s for our Official Development Assistance (ODA). That 0.7%, however, is only a drop in the ocean, and ODA will never be the driving force of progress.
A thought experiment
But suppose we set up a thought experiment: what if we abolished development cooperation as we know it today? This is not a radical or new idea: the current post-development and decolonisation movements reconnect with authors such as Freire, Illich and Escobar in the 1980s and 1990s.
The book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary offers an interesting compilation of current thinking. Olivia Rutazibwa, for example, argues for an ‘ethical retreat’ from the West: we do good by perhaps doing less. This links with the ‘Do-No-Harm’ debate that arose after a number of disastrous interventions – think of Rwanda and Ex-Yugoslavia – in the 1990s: before we try to do good, we better make sure we do not make things worse.
A Global Check
But what can we do? If we abolish development cooperation, what should we do with the Belgian Federal Public Service (FPS) of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation? My concrete answer: we turn it into a FPS of Global Affairs. Instead of arranging the financial transfer from North to South, they will use their manpower and budget to carry out a Global Check: i.e., to assure that Belgian action – in all its policies, think of migration, agriculture, trade, climate, defence, energy, and so on – complies with Mill’s harm principle and does not harm third parties on a global scale.
For those who wish to translate this suggestion into technocratic terminology: they become the advocates of Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development (PCSD). So, instead of entrusting the Global Check to the current Advisory Council on Policy Coherence for Development – which has virtually no power today – we are deploying a whole FPS and its budget to ensure that we Belgians respect Mill’s harm principle and integrate a global view in assessing all Belgian policies. I am sure that part of the civil service will be happy to contribute to this shift.
This should enable us to make a decolonial switch. We should stop imposing SDGs as a deus ex machina to the rest of the world. Instead, we should search for the limits of our own freedom in order to respect the freedom of others and the limits of our planet. In other words: we should not start from ‘the West’ as a utopian blueprint or Hegelian endpoint of history but start with a shared quest for progress on the basis of one ethical principle: the harm principle.
A barking and tail wagging watchdog
That leaves us with civil society. What should we do with our NGOs, universities and other civil society organisations? Many have already started a decolonisation process. They realise that they have to detach themselves from a reality that is no longer there: a split between North and South. A clear illustration today is that many NGOs are struggling with the division of their organisation into a North and South department. Many are carrying out internal reorganisations. However, these will remain cosmetic interventions if the underlying transfer of money from North to South is not questioned: we collect money in the North that we spend in the South.
But also civil society should realise that the financial transfer of 0,7% ODA/GNI is a drop in the ocean and that ODA will never result in a fair and ethical distribution of costs and benefits around the world. Instead, we should, on the one hand, start with a real discussion on reparations. On the other hand, the 0.7% ODA/GNI could and should be spent more effectively to assure the Global Check of Belgian policy: through sensibilisation, world citizenship education, advocacy, and policy work Belgian civil society has an important role to play in conducting this Global Check. But the financial transfer – and the associated conditionality – from North to South via NGOs should be questioned.
As a result, South departments should no longer function as audit offices: it is no longer about programme managers who have to monitor and report if the money is spent properly. Subsequently, North departments should no longer evolve into marketing machines that collect funds. On the contrary, civil society can once again be what it should be: an awareness-raising, independent, critical watchdog. And because they are less financially dependent on government subsidies, they can start barking more as a watchdog. Not biting, but barking, and also wagging their tail a lot: inviting people to look at a global world in a positive way. Since everything on Earth is connected to everything else.
Thomas Vervisch is an Assistant to the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences and to the Department of Conflict and Development at Ghent University. He is a member of the Ghent Centre for Global Studies.
A Dutch version of this blog is published on MO*Magazine.