Yesterday saw the London launch of the report of the “TransAtlantic Taskforce on Development”.
Not at first sight the most enthralling topic. Its sunny title “Toward a Brighter Future”, might lead the reader to expect just one more development report entreating the international community to commit more money in pursuit of world peace and prosperity. The fact that it is the product of a group made up exclusively of development experts in the North (specifically Europe and North America) with virtually no participation from developing countries, might reinforce a cautious approach.
There is in reality much to recommend it. Its purpose is to create some sense and coherence between European and North American development assistance efforts. Given the recent faultlines between the US and Europe on everything from democracy promotion to aid harmonisation to approaches to climate change and food security, the report could hardly be more timely or useful.
The report focuses explicitly on how development assistance between the US and Europe (and Canada) can be better organised. The timing is good for several reasons. Fundamental but not yet entirely clear changes in US policy to developing country assistance are underway. It's a time of financial crisis when non-aid flows to developing countries (private investment and remittances from migrants) are diminishing rapidly and aid is becoming more, not less important for developing countries. Public support for development assistance (which for the first time in many years is increasing as a proportion of overall financial flows) is faltering on both sides of the Atlantic.
The report, funded by the German Marshall Fund, brings together some extremely fine minds in international development policy and, for once, restricting it to European and US participation has a logic – that the US and Europe have responsibilities to get their own houses in order on these issues, not least in opening themselves up to more transparent scrutiny, including from those whose lives they are designed to benefit.
Summaries and the full report itself are at www.gmfus.org. It focuses explicitly on climate change, food security, effective development, and development, democracy and security.
I won’t attempt to summarise it, but the section on “development, democracy and security” deserves some reflection.
We seem to be entering a more cautious, more defensive discourse on democracy in relation to development. That is not necessarily new (the debate on democratic sequencing has been going on for years) but it may be becoming more pervasive. And part of the issue has to do with an inevitable reaction to the ideological democratic puritanism of the Bush administration, but there are issues that go beyond that.
The report implies that there should a stronger focus on engaging especially with the most fragile of states regardless of their democratic status. It reflects a broader development trend where democracy is no longer so exclusively equated to the holding of elections. "Elections represent only one part of a functioning democracy. Voice, capacity, accountability and responsiveness – especially the need for checks and balances – are equally important, particularly in the early stages of a legitimate system."
The report places as much of a focus on security as it does democracy, arguing that, when asked, people living in poverty crave security and safety as one of their foremost priorities. It echoes the increasing trend (including in the Obama administration) towards the use of smart power (although the phrase is not used), marrying up development, diplomatic, and military efforts in an increasingly strategic way. It argues for long-term thinking and engagement.
There seems in reports like this, compared to a few years ago, to be a less emphatic focus on democracy, but much more about accountability. If there is a central development trend at present, it is the stress on the importance of governments and officials being accountable to their citizens, and of aid expenditure being increasingly accountable and open to those it is designed to benefit. This Taskforce report certainly reflects that and a free and plural media is highlighted in several instances in this report, particularly in its critical role in enhancing accountability.
There is much to welcome in all this. Those working with the media have always argued that there is too much focus on the procedural aspects of democracy – particularly elections; and not enough on the substantive aspects, the day-to-day systems and capacities in society that build up a democratic fabric of informed citizens and accountable institutions, of which a free and plural media is key.
There was very little in this substantive and sensible report to disagree with and, from the perspective of someone who argues for a stronger understanding and commitment of media in the development process, much to celebrate.
But there may be a danger that we are entering a more defensive debate on democracy in development. Acknowledging that democracy in many settings has failed to deliver sufficiently for its citizens and that democracy promotion has become associated with war and dogma is important. But those realities demand a reinvention and reimagination of the debate on democracy and development, not an abandonment of it. This important report does neither, but it does raise questions about where this debate is headed.
For those of us involved in supporting media in developing countries, our principal argument is often that media is central to holding government and authorities to account. But this accountability function is not a technocratic one, it is a democratic one.
It is not simply about ensuring that government works more effectively, that money is spent more wisely, although those concepts are fundamental. It is also that media has a critical and (normally constitutionally enshrined) position in ensuring a working system of government where power ultimately resides with the people. There may be a need to rediscover and reinvent a broader democratic debate in development policy if the role of media in democratic development is not to be reduced too much to a rather narrow and functional role.