Author : Lies Debuysere
Site of publication : Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
Type of publication : Article
Date of publication : 19, May 2021
As the world has changed from a unipolar hegemony to a multipolar one with competing global powers, the Western development paradigm that seeks to grant assistance to ‘underdeveloped’ nations has openly turned from an allegedly altruistic project into an endeavour of geostrategy.
Civilising vs. developing the Global South
Nowadays, development cooperation is still often seen by Western citizens as an altruistic way to grant assistance and aid to peoples suffering from misery and poverty.
This development discourse served to depoliticise global inequality and brushed aside the role that extractive colonialism and Western intervention had played in ‘underdeveloping’ countries in the Global South.
Economic development in Europe and the US has coincided with land grabs, tax evasion, climate costs and rigged trade deals in developing countries, which make it structurally difficult for the latter to develop
The technical solution for global inequality was adopting a highly individualised, competitive growth model based on free market politics. The fact that such a model may not be ecologically sustainable or difficult to replicate in another context due to a highly interdependent world was disregarded.
Economic development in Europe and the US has coincided with land grabs, tax evasion, climate costs and rigged trade deals in developing countries, which make it structurally difficult for the latter to develop.
The ambitions of development aid are too low, and it is hard to claim that the current Western development model is convincingly working in Africa.
The West, not the only kid on the block
As it developed economically, China became an important foreign aid, trade and investment partner in Africa. Not having been a colonial power itself in Africa, China has the advantage of pursuing a form of South-South cooperation, which provides a more balanced starting point for foreign aid.
In reaction to this changing geopolitical reality, the EU has put the historic partnership with Africa high on the political agenda.
The EU recently voiced its ambition, via a roadmap for a new 2020 Africa Strategy, for a “partnership of equals” beyond donor-recipient relations. Paradoxically, this roadmap has been largely unilaterally drafted, disregarding some key priorities for Africa (such as poverty, health, access to the internet).
The EU still trades manufactured goods in return for primary goods, in what is often seen as a hierarchical and unbalanced centre-periphery trade relation.
While the African Union (AU) has pushed for an EU-AU agreement outside of the outdated EU-ACP structure, some African member states and the EU have been less willing to fundamentally rethink the ACP framework.
A new development narrative
If the EU wishes to establish an equal partnership with Africa, it not only needs to radically rethink this ACP framework, but also its development narrative.
To adapt to a new world of great powers, a key question will be which development model Africa will follow in the decades to come. This requires a new development narrative based on a truly reciprocal partnership.
While once hegemonic, the Western model of development cannot claim to be morally superior in today’s multipolar world: the EU should refrain from prescribing interventions in African people’s lives that these people themselves may disapprove of.
Fostering socioeconomic equality and dignity is a less arrogant and more credible way to build equal partnerships with external partners. Most importantly, such an egalitarian model respects the political and economic sovereignty of third countries or continents while also contributing to the EU’s own interest in stability in its neighbourhood and beyond.
As Africa’s debt crisis can be traced to the colonial era, the EU has a historical responsibility to help Africa get rid of this suffocating debt trap by taking the global lead in cancelling (not just suspending) it.
Second, the EU and its member states need to foster a fairer global economic trading system.
Today’s global economy perpetuates this underdevelopment through global supply chains that rely on cheap labour and environmental exploitation.
While once hegemonic, the Western model of development cannot claim to be morally superior in today’s multipolar world: the EU should refrain from prescribing interventions in African people’s lives that these people themselves may disapprove of
To address these problems, concrete proposals that address tax evasion and avoidance by European companies operating in Africa should be included in the EU’s new Africa Strategy.
Thirdly, there is an urgent need to democratise the major institutions of global governance — the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) — so they become less Eurocentric.
Finally, a fundamental rethinking of the EU’s development practice and narrative is timelier and more necessary amid the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. The EU will first need to acknowledge that its own development only took place thanks to the exploitation of former colonies, otherwise it will be unable to develop a partnership of equals with Africa.
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