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EADI General Conference 2011: Rethinking Development in an Age of Scarcity and Uncertainty

New Values, Voices and Alliances for Increased Resilience

EADI's triennal general conferences are the Association's public forum for debate and research. The 13th General Conference was held in co-operation with the Development Studies Association of the United Kingdom and Ireland (DSA).

The EADI-DSA 2011 joint conference was one convening space to fundamentally revisit and rethink the development paradigm(s) in all its dimensions in an era of plurality, uncertainty and change.

The EADI-DSA 2011 conference maximised the opportunity of working together and to revisit and rethink ‘development’, to generate new ideas, new narratives and new thinking whenever possible globally co-constructed with partners in global-South.

The conference seeks went forward by rethinking what are new universals in terms of ideas, and narratives that will allow humanity to reach some kind of adaptive and sustainable pathway or pathways by taking inter-cultural, inter-generational and inter-disciplinary forces into account.


The coming age of scarcity and uncertainty

Crises – what crises? On the surface, the world economy seems to be back on track. Only two years ago, the global financial system was shaken by the collapse of major banks, and a complete meltdown could only be averted by courageous action of central banks and finance ministers in the U.S. and in Europe. They bailed out banks and insurance companies and stimulated macroeconomic demand through public deficit spending of unprecedented scale. Global coordination of monetary and fiscal policies between the old industrial countries and the newly emerging economies has gained a new quality with the frequent meetings of the G20 finance ministers and heads of governments. So far, another Great Depression like that of the 1930s could be prevented. Today, the world economy is growing again and the only change may be that China, India and other emerging economies are the new power houses whereas the old industrial countries are lagging behind with their ageing populations and towering sovereign debts.

Yet, the debt burden of major OECD countries is not the only threat to a sustainable economic recovery. There are striking similarities between the present crisis and that of the 1970s. In 1972, an influential study commissioned by the Club of Rome had diagnosed that there will be Limits to Growth within the next 50 years if the industrial societies (plus the industrializing countries) pursue their growth trajectory based on excessive consumption of fossil fuels and resource throughput. The resource crunch of the 1970s that was triggered by the quadrupling of crude oil prices could be seen as an early warning sign of future growth limits. Looking closer, one may detect an even more disturbing similarity with today’s global challenges: 35 years ago, the OPEC cartel strategy became effective only after U.S. oil production had peaked in 1971 and the country had to import increasing quantities of oil thereafter. America’s rising oil bill (in conjunction with the spending for the Vietnam War) undermined foreign governments’ and central banks’ confidence in the stability of the dollar. Additionally, the collapse of the Bretton Woods system that had guaranteed 25 years of relative stability and growth of the world economy, led to frequent financial crises, first in the developing world, and now in the top league of the developed world.

The old debate between Malthusians and cornucopians will take in new evidence, this time on a global scale: Will humanity have to prepare for an age of scarcity with grim repercussions for equality (both intra- and inter-generational) and liberty to be expected, or can we rely on the unlimited creativity of men facing unforeseen challenges, so that the combination of new technologies with new forms of organisation and collective decision making will pave the way to an even better future for everybody? That debate will never be settled, yet it is indisputable that stakes are high for human ingenuity and creativity to navigate a course that avoids future resource crunches and other environmental disasters without compromising the aim of alleviating poverty in the developing world thus closing the gap with the developed world. That will require a combined thrust by governments, business, academia and civil society on research and development of new technologies that replace or save fossil fuels and for enhanced research in economics and the other social sciences on how developed and developing societies will cope with the challenges of the coming age of scarcity and uncertainty.

The future may prove completely different from the past centuries of Western industrialization with Asia and other under-developing regions falling behind at the beginning and now catching up again, even if at different speeds. The complementary threats of climate change and now peak oil force all major economies to change course toward a low carbon economy by replacing fossil fuels with alternative energies and energy saving technologies. If climate change is seen by many as a distant possibility, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 should remind everybody that peak oil may be imminent or arrive before the end of this decade. That would drive oil prices to ever higher levels and act as a brake upon future economic growth. Governments’ stimulus programmes may be doomed to fail, and the world economy is poised for a bumpy road ahead.

It is a challenging task to predict how the fault lines between a rising East and a stagnating or declining West will develop in a world of finite resources. Will the new challenges evoke a climate of international cooperation, or lead to resource conflicts and military confrontations? The simultaneous impasse of global negotiations on climate policy (Copenhagen climate summit) and on trade policy (Doha Development Round in the WTO) does not augur well for cooperative solutions in this age of global power shifts.

Implications for development and development thinking

At the end of a relatively benign period in terms of growth, aid, stability and public spending, the world is changing fundamentally. This will give ‘development’ a new meaning. It can no longer be taken for granted that developing countries will follow the development path of the industrialized countries. The rich countries themselves will have to develop and change toward serious sustainability and resilience. Poorer countries may be more resilient in some respect than highly organized developed countries. There will be ample scope for learning in both ways. Will there be convergence? Will we have to experiment with different development models and strategies? Will the outcome be something completely new that could become attractive for both developing and developed countries?

In this fundamentally changing world, people and governments will search for new development narratives, new ‘universals’ for human development and human wellbeing, and new ways of doing ‘development’ that are equitable, pro-poor and responsive to a changing and uncertain context. This is not just a question of the global economic crisis and its aftermath. There are big ‘game changers’ in terms of climate change, demographic shifts and new technologies. At the same time opportunities are already emerging for major rethinking: of global governance, global macroeconomic and resource management, of urban planning and development, of social policy to protect and insure the poor, of a low-carbon future. Further, there is considerable ferment on the understandings of ‘development’, ‘progress’, ‘poverty’ and ‘wellbeing,’ as illustrated by various initiatives, such as the OECD Measuring the Progress of Societies Project and the Stiglitz/Sen/Fitoussi Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

An opportunity for rethinking international development

The DSA-EADI 2011 joint conference seeks to be one convening space among many others for these global debates and to fundamentally revisit and rethink the development paradigm(s) in all their dimensions in an era of plurality, uncertainty and change.

Looking ahead, there are some major ‘game changers’ beyond the immediate crisis. For example,

  • in governance and politics - the decline of US and Western global influence; the rise of China and the BRICs, new donors and policy actors, such as foundations;
  •  in demographics - population growth, differentiated demographic transitions, evolving age structures and changing labour markets;
  • in the environment - climate change leading to greater volatility in the weather and agriculture production; water scarcity; resource conflicts;
  • in technology - the spread of existing technologies such as biotechnology and the development of new(er) technologies, such industrial biofuels, ICTs and nanotechnology;

The economic crisis itself has also led to more significant and fundamental questions being asked. For example,

  • in global governance: The G8 to G20 shift means more representation and power for large developing nations, but changes in the IMF and World Bank will be crucial for wider changes in governance;
  • in building a green(er) economy: There is an opportunity to shift to lower carbon development, but political pressure may mitigate this;
  • in new economic policies: There is likely to be a greater tendency for developing countries to explore new development models; approaches from non-Western sources are more likely to be taken up than Western prescriptions.

In sum, although the Washington Consensus has been declared dead (again), it is, as yet, unclear, what the real change is. If it opens up discussion of a wider range of policy instruments for development, then this has potentially huge implications.