Development From the Bottom Up and the Top DownNovember 28, 2008 By John SewellFrom Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World, by Oxfam’s Duncan Green, is a very important book—one that should be read by everyone at the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and bilateral aid agencies. It combines a critique of current development policies and institutions with insights from community organizing and grassroots empowerment. Furthermore, it is comprehensive, covering not only aid but also politics, inequality, vulnerability, and reform of global governance structures. Finally, the book links the two critical components of the development equation: citizen participation and competent governance. The dichotomy between these two has always been a false one.
Green’s central message is that “development, and in particular efforts to tackle inequality, is best achieved through a combination of active citizens and effective states.” This should become part of the operational code of every development institution.
Green points out that “shocks and changes” can be important catalysts for reform. The current financial crisis is one of these shocks, and for our political leaders, it has made global governance a problem to be dealt with—as opposed to an issue too easily ignored. Just look at the recent G20 meeting. My colleagues and I spent a fair amount of time a decade ago designing and trying to sell leaders on an expanded summit to deal with the challenges of globalization. There were no takers. Yet this month we had a heads-of-state meeting that included leaders previously excluded from the G7.
No one really knows how long this crisis will last. But if leaders and their governments do not respond wisely and creatively, the human costs in both rich and poor countries will be immense. Leaders must understand that market forces left unregulated can ultimately prove destructive. This is the lesson of the struggle to regulate the U.S. national economy during the 19th century and of the period after World War I.
The financial crisis also provides an opportunity to raise fundamental questions about long-standing development policies. I strongly believe that the world, and particularly the United States, needs to adopt a new type of realpolitik—call it global realpolitik if you wish. For the United States, a global agenda should include:
- An energy strategy that transitions to a less oil-dependent energy supply;
- A climate policy that recognizes one of the greatest threats to our well-being;
- A renewed emphasis on agriculture so that food production increases, particularly in poor countries;
- A health policy that deals with major health threats, old and new, and equips the world to deal with the next pandemic;
- An international effort to deal with failing states and internal conflicts; and
- A major emphasis on ending poverty.
In all of these areas, development promotion provides an important set of tools. No matter how good our intentions, we cannot accomplish these goals without competent partners: states with the capacity to manage their own affairs and cooperate on global problems—states in which rights and freedoms are guaranteed, and in which people feel they have a voice in the policies that affect them. International development is critical to helping foster such states.
I have two additional comments on From Poverty to Power. First, I think the section on aid could have been stronger. The aid “business” is in considerable disrepair, with simply too many donors trying to do too many things in too many places with too little coordination. There are many ways to make aid more effective, but they will not be easy to implement, and Green could have delved into the complexities a bit more.
Second, the book’s strength is also its weakness. It is nearly 500 pages long and has 792 endnotes! Fortunately, there are summaries in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese available online—but there needs to be a version aimed specifically at policymakers. Imagine you had 10 minutes to brief President-Elect Obama on the key findings of the book. What would you tell him? For better or worse, in this town, your insights are only as good as your elevator speech.
John W. Sewell is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the former president of the Overseas Development Council.
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