The Politics of Development - ngo-federatie


The Politics of Development

ContactpersoonFemmy Thewissen
05 Mar 2019

The politics of development are changing: together with shifting geographies (see Trend 1) changing geopolitical trends, the return of realpolitik, a shrinking space for civil society, and fundamental critiques on the aid sector are setting the scene for a different political agenda.

Changed Geography

Based on a changed geography of poverty and development (see Trend 1) international development is increasingly substituted by a global development agenda.

The SDG framework offers for the first time a global development agenda that goes beyond the North-South divide and transcends the aid sector.[1] This new ‘beyond aid’ paradigm increasingly questions the relevance and effectiveness of aid relative to other actors and approaches of international cooperation.[2] As a consequence, the new agenda identifies new actors and suggests sending financial aid flows into other directions (see further). Furthermore, concepts such as the Global South and the divide between developed and developing countries no longer hold. In fact, these concepts have been criticized for their neo-colonial connotations from in the beginning.[3] The limits of the world are the limits of our language. In order to explain why the work of the aid sector will still be relevant in the future, the sector will need a new vocabulary and conceptual framework. One that does justice to a changed geography of global poverty and development.

The return of Realpolitik

The populist roar forms an important driver of potential change for the international development sector.[6]

On the one hand, increasing populism and nationalism are driven by the observation that globalisation has profited more non-Western – especially the upcoming economies – than Western countries, with increasing discontent among the middle classes in the US and much of Europe because of the virtual stagnation of median incomes over the past 30 years.[7]

On the other hand, the Western liberal values that supported much of the voluntaristic international development agenda that emerged after the end of the Cold War have been replaced by political realism and realpolitik in which the primacy of homeland security and the pursuit and protection of national interests has been reaffirmed.[8]  For international development the most direct risk of this return of Realpolitik can be found in the further instrumentalisation of aid for internal and foreign policy purposes.

Shrinking civil society space

An undeniable trend is the crackdown on civil society worldwide referred to as ‘shrinking space for civil society’.

It encompasses diverse strategies of governments to suppress civil society activism, ranging from regulations, often related to restrictions on international funding of CSOs, to outright repression.[9]  While these strategies are mostly deployed in developing countries, the shrinking space can also be felt to different degrees in EU member states, such as Poland, Hungary and Romania.

The Arab Spring has set in motion another wave of legislative constraints. “Governments around the world took notice of these mass movements and initiated measures to restrict civil society in the hopes of preventing similar uprisings on their own soil”.[10]  Yet, the arguments and justifications used by governments to enact restrictions are of a different nature:

  1. protecting state sovereignty;
  2. promoting transparency and accountability in the civil society sector;
  3. enhancing aid effectiveness and coordination;
  4. pursuing national security, counterterrorism, and anti–money laundering objectives”.[11]

The aid sector in existential crisis

In the aid sector the aid effectiveness debate has dominated all other debates for more than a decade now.

In 2005, the initial Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness was like opening Pandora’s Box: from then on the sector has been in a constant defence against attacks like ‘Dead Aid’ from Dambisa Moto. This has changed the highly political objective of international solidarity into a technocratic exercise in demonstrating value for money. Furthermore, the strong dependency on public funding comes with strong managerialism, financial instability and competition logic. More importantly this financial dependency also potentially impinges on civil society’s autonomy.

Redefining challenges

The highlighted politcial evolutions and shifts define new challenges for the aid sector.

  • Changing Donors – competing with the ‘new’ donors. New aid donors such as the BRIC and MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) emerge while the ‘traditional’ Western governmental aid agencies are becoming less influential in setting the development assistance agenda.[12]  At the policy level of OECD-DAC donors already a shift towards foreign trade and investment interests as important determinants for ‘development’ cooperation can be observed as a consequence of this rise of new aid donors.[13]  This is also the case for new development models such as South-South cooperation and trilateral development (partnership between OECD-DAC member, new donor – e.g. Brasil of South Africa – and the recipient country). Although they have advantages (more equal partnerships, promoting OECD-DAC standards to new donors) these new models also risk to be used as foreign policy tools (instead of focusing on development).[14]  In addition, an important question remains how these new donors will relate to civil society, both at home and abroad, and what potential effect this may have on the functioning and role of western civil society.
  • Changing Donor Priorities – follow the money? The changed geography of development (see Trend 1) should explain shifting priorities from MICs to LICs and fragile states. However, although global ODA has increased over the last couple of years, the amount of ODA going to LICs has declined.[15]  For example, ODA to conflict-affected and fragile states fell by 7% and ODA to Sub-Sahara Africa fell by 13% between 2011 and 2016. However, aid to MICs has been stable or even increased. This can be explained by the prioritisation of national interests and commercial objectives, which is also translated in the promotion of blended finance and private sector instruments.[16]  Furthermore, a substantial part of the increase in global ODA flows is due to in-donor spending – more in particular in-donor refugee costs – and an increasing share of ODA is dedicated to humanitarian aid (increased by 66% since 2010). Lastly, an increasing amount of ODA is diverted towards national security interests – mainly migration and the war on terror – as illustrated by the 3.1 € billion EU Trust Fund for Africa, of which 90% are ODA funds.[17]  In sum, the financial flows reflect the new geopolitical setting (political realism) and the new donor priorities, i.e. a gradual re-focus on national interests (trade, security, migration control, humanitarian response).
  • Changing Ideologies – the instrumentalisation of aid. The emergence and rise of nationalist and populist movements and politics affects the international development sector in various ways. It undermines multilateralism through their lack of trust in international organisations and their withdrawal from international arrangements (such as the Paris Climate Change Agreement).[18]  They might also form a threat to the international humanitarian and development system by questioning the impartiality of aid, international humanitarian law, and hard-won reforms in the sector.[19]  As explained above OECD-DAC donors are increasingly marrying ODA with national economic and security interests in reaction to these populist dynamics. Clear illustrations of this trend are for example the UK, the Netherlands and Canada.
  • Changing civil societies – retaking the public space. Current civil societies are confronted with at least two important trends. Firstly, although a shrinking space for civil society can be observed, the Arab spring and several other popular upraisals in for example Sub-Sahara Africa (Third Term protest) but also in Europe (Youth for Climate) illustrate the power of the people to resist. They also question how the traditionally organized ‘mainstream’ civil society will catch up with new types of mass civil movement, mostly formed by the youth and led by non-mainstream activists (musicians, artists, …). Secondly, within the aid sector a high dependency on donor funds comes with a high level of technocratisation and potential instrumentalisation. New approaches – such as the ‘buen vivir’ school or the ‘global public goods’ and ‘human security’ agendas – try to counter this a-political turn, go beyond ‘classical’ development approaches, and as such, aim at presenting new political alternatives.


  1. Verbrugge, B. and Huyse, H. (2018). Donor relationships with CSOs at a crossroads? HIVA. p. 15.
  2. Janus, H., Klingebiel, S., and Paulo, S. (2015). Beyond Aid: A conceptual perspective on the transformation of development cooperation. Journal of International Development, 27, p. 156.
  3. Horner, R. and Hulme, D. (2017). From International to Global Development: New Geographies of the 21st Centrury Development. Development and Change, 0(0):  p. 4.
  4. Bond. (2015). Tomorrow’s World. How might megatrends in development affect the future roles of UK-based INGOs? p. 7.
  5. ICSC? (2016). Exploring the future. p. 9.
  6. Kharas, H. and Rogerson, A. (2017). Global development trends and changes. Overseas Development Institute. p. 7.
  7. Kharas, H. and Rogerson, A. (2017). p. 13.
  8. Kharas, H. and Rogerson, A. (2017). p. 13.
  9. Verbrugge, B. and Huyse, H. (2018). and Rutzen. (2015). Civil society under assault. Journal of Democracy, Volume 26, Number 4, p. 28-39.
  10. Rutzen. (2015). p. 30.
  11. Rutzen. (2015). p. 31.
  12. ICSC? (2016). Exploring the future. p. 15.
  13. Kharas, H. and Rogerson, A. (2017). p. 14.
  14. McEwan, C. and Mawdsley, E. (2012). ‘Trilateral Development Cooperation: Power and Politics in Emerging Aid Relationships’. Development and Change 43(6): 1185–1209.
  15. For ODA data: see OECD. (2018). Development Cooperation Report 2018. Joining forces to leave no one behind. OECD Publishing Paris.
  16. Meeks, P. (2017). Mixed messages: the rhetoric and the reality of using blended finance to ‘leave no-one behind’. Eurodag. p. 3.
  17. CONCORD. (2018). Aidwatch 2018. Security aid, fostering development, or serving European donors’ national interest?
  18. Kharas, H. and Rogerson, A. (2017). p. 16.
  19. The Guardian. (2016). Western populism is a fundamental threat to the humanitarian system
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