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Do more

by Hans Dembowski
According to the FAO, over 1 billion people are not getting enough to eat today. For four decades, that figure had stagnated below 900 million. Need has recently risen due to several factors. They include – the global financial crisis, which is affecting the purchasing power of the least well-off in particular, – the production of biofuels to the detriment of food production and – changing lifestyles in emerging markets, where middle classes are catching up with Western standards, with consumerism anywhere implying there are less commodities left over for the poorest people.

In spite of these alarming trends, the picture is not as bleak as many on the political left believe. It is not true that ever more people are ever worse off. In the late 1960s, one third of humankind suffered from malnutrition. Forty years on, their share is about one sixth. During the past decades, life expectancy, literacy, per capita income and other development indicators rose in many places.

The greatest progress was made in Asia, where the competition between capitalism and communism prompted many of the continent’s governments to modernise their countries and make them fit for the global market. The courses China and Vietnam steer today resemble those that lifted South Korea and Singapore out of poverty earlier. These countries harnessed the help of other nations to develop capacities of their own, thus allowing governments to coordinate industrialisation. It did not work to leave development to market forces, as the World Bank, for instance, learned from its failed structural-adjustment programmes.

A lot remains to be done after half a century of international aid programmes. Lack of progress is evident in sub-Saharan Africa; and economic and socio-political stagnation is also frustratingly widespread in the Middle East. No doubt, these regions are not developing productively.

Well-meant aid cannot solve these problems. Where societies lack the will to modernise, success is impossible. There is no substitute for competent administration. Over the past decade and a half, donors have therefore strived to set incentives for good governance. They face a dilemma, however, because, in foreign countries, they want to achieve something that has to be brought about by those societies themselves. This fundamental contradiction is particularly evident in conflict-torn countries where the state itself has failed or become too fragile for donors to find partner governments of substantial authority, not to mention integrity.

There is no simple way out of this fundamental dilemma. But that is no reason to let melodious rhetoric gloss over donors’ violations of their own principles. Nor does it excuse donors for undermining their aid efforts with destructive behaviour in other fields of policymaking. In our fast globalising world, after all, international affairs always have a significant bearing on national development. Food security is no longer something the nation state can manage on its own. Climate change, financial stability and fighting terrorism are three more examples of challenges that exceed the reach of any individual government.

For these reasons, development policy is becoming more difficult, but also more important. The most striking reason is global warming. In future, donors will have to do a great deal more – and more effectively so – to help poor countries reduce greenhouse emissions and adapt to by-now inevitable climate change.