Posts Tagged ‘international politics and development’

Zero sum games in a positive sum world

Charles Kenny of CGD has got a new book out: The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest Is Good for the West. I haven’t read it, and am not sure when I might find the time, but there’s a handy CGD wonkcast which summarises the main points.

“The US will lose some global influence, as China’s GDP overtakes it, maybe as India’s GDP overtakes it; but Britain has much less global influence today than it had at the height of the British Empire and it’s also just a much nicer place to live [for the majority].”

I.e. economic development is a positive sum game: one person getting richer does not diminish the amount of wealth available to everyone else. Add in some nifty technological innovation and the quality of life can improve out of all recognition.

So why fear the rise of China? In particular why do Western elites (as opposed to the ‘working classes’ who have seen jobs migrate eastwards) appear so wary? Is it because the unipolar world that emerged after the collapse of the USSR seemed so cosy, and they fear losing that?

Diplomacy, at least in the context of superpower rivalry, often seems to be treated as a zero sum game. My guess is this is why so many international negotiations – and especially the climate change ones – are utterly bogged down at present. The US feels it can afford to be magnanimous to Chad but not to China, and with that thought we kiss goodbye to the notion of altruistic global leadership.

I have a little theory. You know those studies that suggest after a certain level becoming richer does not make us happier? (Yes I know they are not without their critics.) Could it be that we are not so much made happy by increasing material wealth, but by how we compare to our peers? By this logic it matters little if we cook the planet so long as at the end of it we are still richer than the Chinese.

Depressing, huh? Have a little listen to the resolutely optimistic Charles Kenny, and maybe you’ll cheer up a bit.

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Not smart politics

A lot of times development and conservation struggle to get much political and media traction, and are thus starved of the oxygen of publicity. At other times, though, I wonder whether certain issues wouldn’t be best off in the shadows. This is not a call to depoliticize development into a purely technocratic discipline, for many of the most critical issues in aid are deeply political, and little progress can be achieved without political engagement.

But when big international politicians wade into issues quiet, nuanced discussions can all too easily get out shouted by megaphone pronouncements. A recent historical example concerns Zimbabwe; for every time the likes of Bush, Blair or Brown, likely as not driven as much by domestic political calculations, opened their mouths on economic and political mess that ZANU-PF had created, it made it all the easier for Mugabe et al to frame their arguments in the context of oppressed masses throwing off the colonial yoke. Many Zimbabweans, even if they agreed with what was being said, had no wish to hear such tickings-off from the ex-colonial master and their allies.

I fear the same thing might happen now with Gordon Brown’s call to action on the plight of women in Pakistan. It’s hard to disagree with Brown’s aims; the fate of Malala Yousafzai was a dramatic illustration of the challenges faced by women and girls in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I cannot see how improving their situation would not make life a whole lot better there, ultimately including for men and boys too, such is the multiplier effect in development of investing in education for girls. But I am far from convinced that there is a practical straight line from Gordon Brown’s intervention to the outcomes he seeks.

Security clearly continues to be a major concern in that part of the world. From what I understand, improved development outcomes could certainly help in the battle with the Taliban and other jihadists for local hearts and minds. But the pay off from investing in girls’ education will accrue over time, while security concerns are immediate. More to the point, girls’ education is a central battleground in the ‘clash of civilizations’ there. So it seems to me more than possible that promoting girls’ education could actually worsen security concerns, potentially making life overall worse for women and girls rather than better. At the end of the day it is the job of politicians to weigh up such trade-offs, and I know too little about the local situation there to do anything other than ask these questions. But did Mr Brown, his team, and allies such as Avaaz, ask themselves such questions before they picked up the megaphone?

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