By Xiuli Xu, Professor, Dean of the College of International Development and Global Agriculture (CIDGA), China Agricultural University
The term “development” that emerged in Western Europe over 300 years ago has evolved into a set of ideas, institutions and practices, particularly encompassing the concept of official development aid (ODA) that emerged after the Second World War, led by OECD countries. Development concepts, principles and approaches have long been supplied by Western countries, even though a distinction exists between “an interpretive discourse” and “a normative discourse” – with the former indicating a wider pattern of non-Western countries’ societal change and the latter consisting of Western donor agencies’ deliberate efforts to “improve” recipient countries.
Non-Western countries’ understanding of and action towards “development” have mostly been practised at local level, with limited opportunities to contribute to the global development knowledge pool. Do these different narratives on development matter in the context of current efforts to transform international co-operation practices?
Different narratives on development
As a response to the theory of modernisation and ensuing development action by OECD countries after the Second World War, various indigenous development theories and practices emerged in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
For instance, Indian intellectual Vrajenda Raj Mehta proposes alternative solutions and models based on their indigenous cultures and argues that for the development of human beings’ multidimensional personalities, societies should follow a logic of “developing wholes”, according to which each sector of society must be autonomous, within an overall system of harmony and oceanic circles.
In China, no other word is more popular than “development”. It has featured prominently in the country’s two most important political and administrative reports; the leading party’s congress reports and the State Council’s annual working reports since the implementation of the open-door policy at the end of the 1970s. Continuous GDP growth resulting in a reduction of extreme poverty and a recent shift from GDP growth to “green development” are the outcome of the Chinese government’s strong determination to promote development in the context of globalisation.
Since 2013, and particularly after the emergence of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, China has increased its commitment to alleviating the “global development deficit” through its initiation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. The white paper “China’s International Development Co-operation in the New Era 2021” emphasised that China would like to “contribute its strength to resolving global development issues and implementing the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. Recently in September 2021, the Global Development Initiative was proposed by China’s President Xi Jinping at the General Debate of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly to accelerate implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Yet, emerging countries’ and regions’ approaches towards development, particularly within the framework of south-south co-operation, are new to the development co-operation community. So too are their narratives on development. They call for a shift from donor-recipient relationships to partnerships among equals, on the basis of mutual respect and no interference in internal affairs.
The “four deficits”: why it is time to shift to a shared understanding of development
A shift to more diversified narratives and a shared understanding of development between new and established actors in development could enhance co-operation, lead to convergence and facilitate the emergence of new forms of inclusive multilateral governance. Four “deficits” show why the time has come to shift to a shared narrative.
The first is the global governance deficit. To meet increasingly global challenges – such as climate change, food security, global health, poverty and inequality, internet security, the refugee crisis and weakening multilateralism – greater global co-operation is needed.
Second, the trust deficit characterised by intensified competition and geo-political interests that go against mutual respect, effective co-operation, people-to-people cultural exchange, and the concept of a global community with a shared future.
Third, the peace deficit that we see through increasing conflicts, wars and terrorism.
Finally, the development deficit, visible in reduced development resources, lack of well-connected infrastructure, as well as limited socio-economic welfare improvement in major developing countries.
These four deficits call for the traditional objective of development co-operation – in other words, charity – to be revisited, and the principle of solidarity to become the central pillar of the renewed international co-operation narrative. But how can solidarity be reconciled with geopolitical competition and economic interests? New development co-operation practices such as “experimental multilateralism” – learning through trial and error and experimenting with different shapes and forms of co-operation -, anchored in building trust, confidence and capacities across stakeholders, can help in this regard.
Narratives will not converge from one day to the next. Shifting the focus on specific collaborative activities – such as co-operation to fight climate change based on common but differentiated responsibility – might be one approach to improving development co-operation between OECD countries and countries like China. Practices shape our minds and lead to new perspectives. Only through continuous mutual engagement can a new common consensus be reached and new development knowledge be produced and disseminated.
Beyond normative approaches: collaborative approaches to renew international co-operation amidst COVID-19
International development co-operation is at a crossroads. Diverse development narratives that have emerged in the Global South challenge the established development landscape. They call for a more inclusive development architecture, one that is better adapted to the global challenges that we increasingly face. Against this backdrop, shifting from normative approaches to collaborative approaches is critical to renewing and strengthening international co-operation.
These new collaborative approaches require conceptualising the principle of solidarity in development co-operation and leveraging institutions, tools and resources to do so. It also requires gradual improvement, mutual adaptation and pragmatic learning. Particularly at the early stages of experimentation – or experimental multilateralism -, the creation of mission-driven “special development co-operation zones”, similar to China’s Special Economic Zones, could create the space for more mutual learning beyond the normative approach.
 Xu Xiuli and Li Xiaoyun (2020) Development Knowledge: An Invisible Clue for Shaping and Reshaping the World Order, Beijing Cultural Review, V2: pp94-103 (in Chinese).