After 2015: Critically Engaging with Global Development

Last week I had the privilege of spending two days at a thoroughly inspiring and engaging conference entitled ‘After 2015: Development and its Alternatives‘ held at the British Academy in London. As I am sure my academic colleagues would agree, the words ‘inspiring’ and ‘engaging’ are not always associated with some of the conferences we attend. Not least it has provoked me to write another blog post after a summer of inactivity!

The remit of the conference was to critically reflect on the state of international development policy since the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, which famously prompted the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There are eight headline MDGs and these are underpinned by eighteen statistical targets. With the MDGs due to expire in 2015 the second main focus of the discussions was to consider what development alternatives we might envisage in the future.

During the discussions on the first day, the MDGs were described by some as a ‘trojan horse’ that have allowed the broader challenges of development to gain more significance in the minds of policymakers. In particular, Jan Vandemoortele, who during his time working for the United Nations played a role in designing the MDGs, suggested that their simplicity meant they passed his “Grandma test”! In other words, his Grandma (i.e. the wider public) would be able to understand them. I am all in favour of resisting the attempt by many academics (and policymakers) to obfuscate. In fact part of the reason for creating this blog was precisely to engage with the wider public in a format that has broader appeal.

Nevertheless, simplifying the challenge of global development to eight goals with a range of associated numerical targets does result in a specific framing of how we understand and talk about development. For example, David Hulme in his presentation at the conference, highlighted how the MDGs have set a path of results-based performance management that is now largely uncontested. It has certainly struck me, over recent years, how many of the students taking my classes on ‘International Development’ were aware of the MDGs, but how few have felt it necessary to question their underlying logic. After all, who can argue against the goal of ‘eradicating extreme poverty and hunger’?

When we are considering the development chances of over 7 billion people, maybe the reality is that things aren’t necessarily this simple. As a number of participants at the conference convincingly argued, a focus on goals and targets distracts our attention away from interrogating the way the global political economy is organised. How is it run and in whose interests? It is only then that we start to discover many of the obstacles to human development.

If we are going to reflect on the contemporary prospects for global development then we would be better served by starting our analysis by considering the continued push to further embed the market and the rights of capital into all corners of the globe. For example, the rise of bilateral trade and investment agreements negotiated in the first instance between major trading powers and a number of developing countries/regions and now between the EU and the United States (the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) has tipped the balance even further in favour of transnational capital. It is only when we have put the politics of the global economy back into the discussion that we can have an informed discussion about whether these developments are more, or less likely, to achieve the kinds of development outcomes envisaged in the MDGs.

The second day of the conference began with a thought-provoking presentation by Carl Death and Clive Gabay. Rather than dismiss out of hand the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), proposed as the way forward after the expiry of the MDGs in 2015, their discussion considered the possibilities they might offer for transformation. They made a convincing case as to the significant differences between what is being proposed in the SDGs when compared to the MDGs. In particular:

  1. the global focus of the SDGs compared to the MDGs which were essentially aimed at the planet’s ‘bottom billion’;
  2. the inclusion of new issues such as labour rights and inequality that also pose direct challenges for Western states.

From this they concluded there was radical potential – with an emphasis on the word ‘potential’ – in the SDGs.

There is much to admire in their attempt to subvert the prospect of the SDGs turning into more of the same. The question I have is the extent to which the target-driven focus of the SDGs automatically prevents any radical outcomes. This is a caveat they acknowledged and it returns us back to the issue of targets and their impacts. The current plan for the SDGs is to increase the number of goals from eight to seventeen. The consequence of which is a dramatic rise in the overall number of targets. The experience of those of us working in an increasingly target-dominated public sector in the UK know only too well the subversive practices that result from a ‘measurement agenda’ and the setting of targets. James Scott had described this as the ‘audit society’ on the first day of the conference.

The question is whether global development targets are far enough removed from those on the ground to avoid the sorts of subversive practice that ensues when targets are used to audit human behaviour. Moreover, targets imply a conceptualisation of development in strictly quantitative terms and as many of the participants at the conference demonstrated, this limits our imaginations in a number of ways.

The final panel of the conference sought to take us beyond such limits. It included a range of first-hand accounts of lived alternatives to the mainstream development paradigm. Together they also demonstrated the potential consequences of a world that is further opened up to the interests of capital in the name of development.

Particularly inspirational for me was Carlos Zorrilla from Ecuador, who gave us a powerful account of his involvement in a long-running resistance movement against the prospect of open copper mines in the region of Intag. He highlighted how both World Bank policy and domestic state interests have conspired to encourage a vision of development that is both environmentally damaging and opposed by local people. He outlined the threats he has faced as a result, not least from the Ecuadorian state itself, but also the achievements that such collective resistance can realise. Carlos also alerted the audience to the 2008 film ‘Under Rich Earth‘ which documents some of these achievements.

Overall, I must thank the organisers of the conference for creating such an open forum for discussion over the two days. I returned home motivated and re-energised.

Trade Union Solidarity and Free Trade

Do trade unions matter in the Twenty-First Century? How are they responding to ongoing processes of neoliberal restructuring? In particular, what obstacles do they face in developing transnational solidarity against the rise of free trade? What is clear is that national labour movements in different parts of the world have, at times, responded differently to the deepening of trade liberalisation in recent years. This is because the immediate impact they face differs depending on their place within the structure of the global economy.

In a new academic article published earlier this month I explore these questions through a study of how the biggest trade union federation in South Africa – the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) – has reacted to both multilateral and bilateral trade liberalisation. COSATU

The article forms part of a special issue of the journal Globalizations, which considers the theme of ‘Free Trade and Transnational Labour’. My contribution also considers the extent to which COSATU has engaged in building transnational links with labour movements outside of South Africa and how effective these attempts have been.

COSATU was formed in 1985 and since the end of apartheid its membership has grown significantly. At its most recent National Congress in 2012 it reported a total of 2.2 million members across its 21 affiliated trade unions.

The post-apartheid era in South Africa has seen the government embrace the free trade agenda. This was most clearly demonstrated when it adopted its Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy way back in 1996. Despite criticism from COSATU, this represented an acceptance of the neoliberal development model, and in particular the need for South Africa to unilaterally reduce its barriers to trade. At the time COSATU took the position that a more strategic engagement with the global economy was needed. More recently government policy has, to some extent, begun to reflect such a view. The ‘New Growth Path‘ launched in 2010 does place much more emphasis on employment and an active industrial policy although COSATU’s leadership has expressed some serious concerns that the subsequent ‘National Development Plan‘, which was launched in 2012, undermines this shift in approach.

COSATU has been active, to varying degrees, in seeking to build transnational solidarity against both further trade liberalisation within the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and a number of bilateral negotiations involving South Africa. However, these attempts reveal a number of challenges to transnational labour solidarity in the face of free trade. Ultimately, COSATU is first and foremost a national federation and as such it prioritises the needs of its members. As a result the protection of jobs and working conditions within South Africa are its core remit and a number of obstacles to transnational solidarity remain:

  1. Tensions within COSATU are currently high as a result of its relationship with the African National Congress (ANC) in the form of the tripartite alliance. One of the major unions within COSATU, the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) has broken ranks by refusing to endorse the ANC in the forthcoming elections in May 2014 and has questioned the continued viability of the federation itself. Continuing to be in alliance with the ANC does make it difficult to then provide genuine resistance to the trade liberalisation agenda led by the government.
  2. COSATU’s experience of trying to develop solidarity with the European Trade Union Council (ETUC) over WTO proposals for Non-Agricultural Market Access (NAMA) highlights some of the specific issues faced by trade unions in the Global South. In this case one ETUC member, the European Metalworkers’ Federation, joined forces with the owners of the car industry in Europe to undermine the concerns raised by emerging markets, including South Africa, that NAMA would harm key labour-intensive sectors.
  3. At the regional level similar dynamics can be seen but this time it is COSATU that finds itself defending the interests of the dominant national trading power. During the negotiations towards a Free Trade Area within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), COSATU expressed concerns that the domestic clothing and textiles sector could be undermined by cheaper goods of lower quality produced in other parts of Southern Africa.

Given these difficulties in resolving the positions of different national trade unions maybe we should focus on the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which claims on its website to represent ‘the global voice of the world’s working people’. However, ITUC’s approach to free trade agreements has been a reformist agenda based on securing the inclusion of basic labour standards to mitigate any negative impacts on workers. This has led to some of COSATU’s affiliates leaving ITUC. They argue that a more radical approach is needed, which seeks to resist the actual introduction of free trade agreements in the first place, rather than one that seeks to ameliorate their impact on labour.

Instead we may look to the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR). Observations on SIGTUR’s most recent Congress do suggest that it may be a more appropriate avenue for federations like COSATU to focus its energies. Whether it can overcome all of the obstacles identified above remains to be seen.

In sum, workers the world over face common challenges in the face of neoliberal globalisation. These processes can be resisted and, despite some of the difficulties identified above, trade unions should continue to seek to develop solidarity across national borders.

* A limited number of free downloads of the full article are available at

UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series

Last week I attended the first in a series of seven one-day seminars looking into ‘UK-Africa Policy after Labour’, which is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. As one of the co-organisers of the series I am lucky enough to be able to attend all the discussions, which will take place at different venues across the UK and then (fingers crossed) conclude with a seminar at the British Institute of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. More details on the seminar series will be available at our website – You can also follow the twitter feed of the seminar series on @UKAfricaSeminar.

Our first session at the University of Sheffield was on the theme of ‘Contemporary UK-Africa Relations in Historical Perspective’. I thought I would post a summary of the discussions including a few of my initial thoughts based on my scribblings during the day.

We were honoured to have Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, to give an opening address. He provided a fascinating overview of the broad sweep of our historical relations with Africa and highlighted that for centuries the British approach has swung between greed and making money and (trying!) to ‘do good’. This struck me as something that remains highly relevant when we consider the nature of contemporary relations.

These opening remarks were then followed by the personal reflections of Prof Christopher Clapham (University of Cambridge) and Martin Plaut (former Africa editor for the BBC World Service). Prof Clapham highlighted how significant colonialism has been to the relationship, but how in more recent years the focus on Anglophone Africa in official UK policy has largely disappeared. Meanwhile, Martin Plaut argued that historically, with a few notable exceptions, Africa has not actually been that important to Britain.

After lunch we were treated to three different, but related presentations on ‘Parties, leaders and UK Africa Policy: from Labour to Coalition’. Rhiannon Vickers (University of Sheffield) gave us plenty of food for thought in her discussion of New Labour’s overall foreign policy and the place of Africa within it.  She convincingly argued that two strands of thought that have a long history within the Labour Party continue to dominate – the desire to focus on the need for justice abroad and the view of Africa as a market for British exports. Julia Gallagher (Royal Holloway) focused in particular on Tony Blair’s emphasis on Africa during his time as PM. She argued that both Blair and Brown’s interest in Africa stemmed from an idealistic (even religious) desire to ‘do good’. As such, for Gallagher, Africa is framed as an apolitical cause or ‘sacred space’ by UK politicians more broadly. Both Vickers and Gallagher suggested that to a large extent we see a lot of continuities in the way Africa is framed by the current government. Finally, Andrew Mycock (University of Huddersfield) demonstrated how the legacies of colonialism have still not been addressed, or acknowledged in Britain, and that this has shaped how both New Labour and the current government view Africa.

Overall, I jotted down four main themes that came out of the discussions:

  1. Which actors should we be focusing on in conducting research on UK-Africa relations? A number of speakers highlighted the creation of the Department for International Development (DFID) by New Labour and the subsequent decline in the influence of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Does this matter and how joined-up is the government on Africa? Or should we be looking at the role played by NGOs, who are extremely active across the continent?
  2. One of the questions that emerged out of many of the presentations was whether the coalition government have captured New Labour’s attempts to make Africa a unique centrepiece of their administration. This is exemplified by the coalition’s commitment to ring-fence DFID’s budget. Was this an attempt to ‘de-toxify’ the Conservative Party’s image to voters? I still remember vividly Tony Blair suggesting in his party conference speech in 2001 that ‘the state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world’. Would a future Labour administration be able to use Africa, as they appeared to last time, to try and highlight the differences between them and the Conservatives?
  3. Linked to the previous point, is the question of whether the UK’s Africa policy is even about Africa as such, or whether it is just bound-up in domestic political battles?
  4. Finally, UK-Africa relations take place within a global context. To what extent does this structure impinge on or influence them? For example, what impact does the growth of Chinese involvement across the continent have for the direction and/or significance of the UK’s current approach?

I am sure these and many more questions will be discussed in forthcoming seminars and I can’t wait for the next one. This will be held at the University of Birmingham on May 13 when we will be looking at recent changes in UK-Africa development policy. Maybe a chance for further discussion on the UK’s decision to end bilateral aid to South Africa from 2015 amongst other things?

World Trade: Ten Years On From Cancún

Image by Global Justice Posters

It was ten years ago today that talks at the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO), held in Cancún, Mexico ended in deadlock. Member states could not agree a consensus mainly due to a lack of movement by the developed world on agricultural subsidies and their insistence on the inclusion of new trade issues. At the time, many development campaigners and a number of negotiators from the developing world celebrated the fact that the world’s leading trade powers had failed in their attempt to push for agreement on the so-called ‘Singapore Issues’.

Did this represent the increased activism of developing states in global trade? What has happened during the decade since Cancún?

A week after the Conference in September 2003 Robert Zoellick, then US trade representative, wrote in a piece for the Financial Times that,

“the key division at Cancún was between the can-do and the won’t-do. For over two years, the US has pushed to open markets globally, in our hemisphere, and with sub-regions or individual countries. As WTO members ponder the future, the US will not wait: we will move towards free trade with can-do countries”.

With hindsight it appears that such comments were not simply diplomatic rhetoric. What we have witnessed since 2003 is a shift in the approach of the established trade powers. They have moved towards a focus on bilateral and regional trade agreements with developing countries and emerging markets, in particular, rather than multilateral negotiations within the WTO.

The European Union (EU), in particular, has embarked on numerous bilateral trade negotiations in recent years. As of August this year the European Commission reported that it has 29 trade agreements in place and is currently negotiating with Japan, the US, Canada, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Morocco, India, Mercosur (regional grouping in Latin America), Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala – to name but a few!

Particularly contentious for many development NGOs has been the negotiation of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states, which has allowed the EU to include at the bilateral level many of the issues that developing countries had resisted at Cancún. The power asymmetry between the EU and the ACP sub-regions involved in the EPA negotiations has enabled them to determine the key aspects of the negotiating agenda. The EU has pursued a ‘deep integration’ approach to its trade negotiations aiming to secure FTAs that go beyond simply the liberalisation of trade in goods.

This has meant the re-introduction of the ‘Singapore Issues’ onto the negotiating table. They refer to the inclusion of investment, competition policy, government procurement and trade facilitation measures. Their introduction (except trade facilitation) would mean that European firms would have to be treated in the same way as any domestic provider. This would pose significant limits to the range of development strategies available given that regulatory policy, previously the preserve of national politics, would become part of the FTA. In particular it would prevent the adoption of an active industrial policy. The introduction of these behind-the-border issues would also create a harmonisation of the business environment in line with the liberal model adopted in Europe, which would be of benefit to European business sectors looking to invest in partner countries.

In essence, what the last decade has revealed is that the focal point of the trade liberalisation agenda has shifted away from the WTO to bilateral trade negotiations. For those of us who seek to resist the neoliberal free trade agenda we must be careful what we wish for!

* A much more detailed (and considered!) elaboration of some of the arguments presented here can be found in Stephen R. Hurt (2013) ‘African agency in world trade undermined? The case of bilateral relations with the European Union’ in William Brown and Sophie Harman (eds), African Agency in International Politics, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 49-64.

UK Aid to South Africa

The UK government’s decision to stop bilateral aid to South Africa in 2015 has aroused significant controversy. As a UK taxpayer and long-time observer of all things South African I feel compelled to blog about this one! Not least because it appears that the popular view within Britain is that this was a good decision. For example, 83% of respondents to a poll on the Guardian website agreed that the UK government was right to cut aid to South Africa.

Despite the fact that official development assistance (commonly known as aid) will always remain a ‘sticking plaster’ approach to the world’s development challenges, I would still suggest this policy is problematic. Not least, it is questionable even on the UK government’s own terms. Justine Greening, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, justified the decision on the grounds that “South Africa has made enormous progress over the past two decades, to the extent that it is now the region’s economic powerhouse and Britain’s biggest trading partner in Africa”. However, the suggestion that South Africa is now an economic powerhouse ignores the daily reality for the majority of its citizens. Inequality, poverty and unemployment remain entrenched despite it being nearly two decades since the end of apartheid.

Langa Township, Cape Town, 2005.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic continues to pose a major public health challenge. According to UNAIDS 5.6 million people are living with HIV in South Africa, which translates into a prevalence rate amongst 15-49 year olds of 17.3%. It is notable that HIV projects are currently one of the central elements of the British aid programme in South Africa. As a result, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance was critical of the UK government’s decision, suggesting that “withdrawing aid to middle income countries like South Africa altogether risks seeing investment made in the HIV response to date, as well as subsequent gains including broader health outcomes, undermined and worse rendered ineffective”.

Defending the announcement, Business Secretary, Vince Cable, suggested that South Africa (along with India) had achieved a ‘successful level of development’. Hmm, really Vince?! Take, for example, the UNDP’s Human Development Index as a measure of development. We find that South Africa has made virtually no progress over recent decades: in 1990 South Africa’s HDI was 0.621 and the latest figure for 2012 is 0.629 (UNDP, Human Development Report 2013, p. 149).

UK aid to South Africa has fallen from a peak of £40-million in 2003 to its current level of £19-million. What does this mean in the overall context of UK aid spending? Well, for 2011/12 DFID’s bilateral expenditure on development was £4,204 million, so development assistance to South Africa only represented 4.5% of this. However, for me, it is less about the money itself, although this has clearly been of some benefit in some targeted aid programmes; it is more about the ideas that this pronouncement reinforces. There are three aspects of the signal this decision sends which are troubling:

  1. It reinforces the popular perception that human development is merely about rising levels of GDP at the level of nation-states. We need to conceptualise underdevelopment in human terms, rather than taking a state-centric view of the world.
  2. It implies that, despite the damage done to Southern Africa through centuries of British colonial rule, and the support provided by successive British governments to the economy during apartheid, it is now not our responsibility to try to help those who continue to suffer the consequences of the entrenched inequalities that this historical relationship has contributed to.
  3. The underlying assumption behind the decision is that the neoliberal mantra of free trade will be the route to development for countries like South Africa.

All these assumptions should be challenged!