Recasting International Development in a Post-Recessionary World

By Stephen McCloskey and Gerard McCann

Globalisation has been a mixed blessing for international development. Below, Stephen McCloskey and Gerard McCann argue that greater resilience is required from development sectors to demand policy intervention, while generous resources are needed to push on from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and finally eliminate the poverty gap between the global North and South.

Globalisation has been something of a mixed blessing for international development and the countries of the global South. On the one hand it has reduced the physical space between peoples across the world and supported the sharing of values, cultures, ideas and knowledge. The accessibility of digital technologies has revolutionised communications and supported the mobilisation of communities and social movements toward development goals. They have also fashioned enhanced levels of collaboration between civil society groups in the global North and South thus helping to ensure greater unity and clarity of purpose in the pursuit of poverty eradication and social justice.

Many states in the global North regrettably regard overseas aid as a luxurious appendage in times of economic decline and have inflicted deeper cuts on aid than domestic policy areas.

The flip side of globalisation has witnessed an abandonment of the post-Cold War Keynesian consensus which combined growth with social protections and the establishment of the accelerated neoliberal economic model which over-extended itself so dramatically in 2008. The rapid deregulation of economic controls in the 1980s and 1990s sent the global economy into freefall and prompted the former Chair of the United States Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, to admit “that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets”1. The subsequent impact of the global recession on the development sector has been severe, with the OECD in 2012 reporting the first drop in overseas development aid in 15 years2. Many states in the global North regrettably regard overseas aid as a luxurious appendage in times of economic decline and have inflicted deeper cuts on aid than domestic policy areas. Ireland, for example, cut its overseas aid budget by 18.9 percent in 2009 and has abandoned a stated policy goal of reaching the UN’s 0.7 percent of Gross National Income (GNI) target for overseas by 20153. Indeed, just six countries have so far reach the UN aid target which was initially agreed in 1970, with Britain becoming the most recent state to reach the UN target4. This receeding commitment reflects the low income base from which the development sector first began to experience cuts in income post-2008. The cuts could hardly have come at a worse time given the pending 2015 target for the achievement of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)5.

The MDGs are eight development targets agreed in 2000 with the overriding aim of reducing by half the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. The goals have proved effective in certain regions and sectors – such as primary school provision and combating malaria – but have proved limited in others, gender equality being one glaring fault-line. With an eye to the review of the MDGs, in a report presented to the September 2013 Millennium Summit in New York, the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon stated that: “A new post-2015 era demands a new vision and a responsive framework. Sustainable dwevelopment – enabled by the integration of economic growth, social justice and environmental stewardship – must become our global guiding principle and operational standard. This is a universal agenda that requires profound economic transformations and a new global partnership”6. From a development perspective this aspiration is laudable but from evidence of formative action, the history of development policy and from the previous commitment of global economic and political leaders, the prospects for the kind of far-reaching development policies necessary to tackle the underpinning causes of poverty are not encouraging.

Poverty in the Global South
As the UN and its member states knuckle down to negotiations on development targets that will supersede the MDGs, they have serious and persistent issues to address. The proliferation of conflict and conflict related issues (such as refugee movements and caring for child combatants) have attended the current era of globalisation. The growth of global conflicts in correlation to disaggregating economic policies, as seen through the enforcement of often extreme austerity measures, are exacerbating poverty in the global South. The Human Development Report in 2013 provides an interesting calculation on the imbalance between what could be called the economy of underdevelopment and that of positive development: with $1.4 trillion being spent on armaments and the military in 2010 yet a mere $137 billion expended on overseas development aid. The misplaced values of our political leaders are even more starkly revealed when we consider that in 2010 the public finance committed to military expenditure was more than the Gross Domestic Product of 50 of the world’s poorest countries7.

The Human Development Report in 2013 provides an interesting calculation: with $1.4 trillion being spent on armaments and the military in 2010 yet a mere $137 billion expended on overseas development aid.

The fuelling of civil wars across Africa and the Middle East, poverty riots in many countries, the re-emergence of nationalistic and ethnic tensions globally and the staggering divergence in wealth between the richest and poorest globally, are cyclical processes that invariably tend to get worse before they get better. To recall the United Nations 2013 statistics on the global poverty gap: across the 104 countries monitored by the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 30 per cent of the world’s population (that is 1.56 billion people) live in poverty and 1.14 billion people struggle to live on $1.25 per day7. The demographic imprint of this divergence is revealing. The poverty gap is geographic, gender based, racially stratified and historic.

Environmental Change
The environmental context for positive development strategies is also a challenging one. The April 2014 Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) from the International Panel on Climate Change presented the urgency for action on development assertively and resolutely.  The report stated:

“Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and expose some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability. Impacts of such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruptions of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability”8.

The message from a scientific and environmental outlook is stark indeed and demands leadership in the transition of systems, including economic and industrial policies, to address the adverse effects of man-made and natural ecological crises. Adaptation through planning and strategic foresight is (again) presented as the only sustainable way to protect against societal exposure to environmental change. “A first step towards adaptation to future climate change is reducing vulnerability… Available strategies and actions can increase resilience across a range of possible future climates while helping to improve human health, livelihoods, social and economic well-being, and environmental quality”8. In practice there is urgency for positive development strategies with an environmentally sensitive remit.

Culture and Globalisation
From a cultural perspective, globalisation has resulted in a global flow of ideas, goods, people and capital which can be perceived as a threat to national and indigenous cultures. As the UN sees it: “asymmetries in flows of ideas and goods need to be addressed so that some cultures do not dominate others because of their economic power”9. For example, the dominance of stock Hollywood films in the global marketplace and the decline of national and regional movies that speak to local issues, profile indigenous cultures and celebrate diversity can only impoverish society.  Film and entertainment can have a significant impact on youth lifestyles, attitudes and behaviours, and it is important that we arrest forms of cultural homogenisation that promulgate a narrow set of values and ideas.  Any new development framework could perhaps strengthen provision of global education that can enhance critical thinking skills and impart values such as respect, diversity and interdependence. This kind of education is a necessary precondition for the active citizenship and behavioural changes needed to address pivotal development issues such as climate change.

The overriding question for any future development paradigm is management of the economy and preventing the cyclical boom and bust economics that have a tendency to unravel progress toward sustainable development. This is necessary for both the global North and South, with countries in the European Union and North America also falling victim to the catastrophic failings of neoliberalism since 2008. While political and economic leaders in the global North have been pursuing a ‘business as usual’ agenda, many countries in the global South have been exploring alternative development paradigms. The 2013 UN Human Development Report titled ‘The Rise of South’ suggests that African and Latin American countries have not only managed the financial crisis to much better effect than their counterparts in the North, but “have resumed their upward trajectories of human development and growth”. While countries in the North have exacerbated the economic crisis through austerity measures that have cut public services and reduced spending, countries in the South have been “taking countercyclical measures and postponing debt reduction for more appropriate times” (UNDP 2013, p. 22).

Solutions in the Global South
The hard and soft left in Latin America – from Argentina and Brazil to Ecuador and Venezuela – have started rejecting old neoliberal orthodoxies, having endured International Monetary Fund and World Bank programmes of debt and structural adjustment since the 1970s and 1980s. Latin America is starting to turn its face away from the ‘Washington Consensus’ toward development paradigms that are informed by social need and based on sustainable stewardship of the natural environment. As the inequities of neoliberalism bite in the North, it could be the case that economic solutions to our problems are to be found in the South. The 2013 Human Development Report suggested that:

“The South is now in a position to influence old models of development cooperation with augmented resources and home-grown lessons, but it also exerts new competitive pressures on other aspects of bilateral cooperation… The development emphasis on improved infrastructure, for example, has been rediscovered because of the domestic experience and lessons of some emerging economies” (UNDP 2013, p. 17).

What development advocates can facilitate are voices on issues that are assertively and specifically global South, bringing a refreshing sense of purpose to those working in the whole field of international development.

While on the one hand development theorists and advocates view the current period of economic transition as volatile and socially combustive, there is also evidence of developmental processes taking place across certain sectors and regions. The Human Development Report suggests that while the recession has precipitated a particularly difficult period for least developed countries – and specifically the poorest within regions subject to persistent impoverishment – there are also alternative Southern initiatives opening up which have reignited the whole question of appropriate development models.

What development advocates can facilitate are voices on issues that are assertively and specifically global South, bringing a refreshing sense of purpose to those working in the whole field of international development.

In many ways the global South is innovating to develop without recourse to the Western, market fixated, structural adjustment models.  Overall, the difficulties that have faced communities internationally since the onset of the financial crisis have reset the process of globalisation and should ward off thoughts of a return to “business as usual”. Greater resilience is required from development sectors to demand policy intervention, while generous resources are needed to push on from the MDGs and finally eliminate the poverty gap between the global North and South. However, the perennial caution remains that international development is a process driven mechanism. This demands foresight and strategic planning – attributes that governments are required to show leadership in.

Gerard McCann and Stephen McCloskey are editors of From the Local to the Global: Key Issues in Development Studies (London: Pluto Press, 2003 and 2009). The third edition is published in February 2015.

About the Authors
stephen-mccloskeyStephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education, a development non-governmental organisation based in Belfast that provides education services on international development issues.  He is the editor of Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, a bi-annual, peer reviewed, open access journal ( and writes extensively on development issues and global education.
gerard-mccannGerard McCann is a Senior Lecturer in European Studies and Geography at St. Mary’s University College, Queen’s University Belfast. He is Academic Manager of the Global Dimension in Education Project and Erasmus Coordinator.

1. New York Times (23 October 2008) ‘Greenspan concedes error on regulation’.
2. OECD (4 April 2012) ‘Development aid drops for the first time in 15 years’, available:, accessed 2 April 2014.
3. Dochas (14 April 2010) ‘Irish cuts among worst in OECD aid list’, available:, accessed 2 April 2014.
4. Overseas Development Institute (April 2014), ‘UK hits development aid target’, available:, accessed 14 April 2014.
5. Millennium Development Goals, available:, accessed 2 April 2014.
6. Ban Ki-moon (26 July 2013) ‘A Life of Dignity for All’, UN General Assembly: New York.
7. UNDP (2013) Human Development Report 2013: The Rise of the South, New York: United Nations Development Programme, p. 27.
8. IPCC, ‘WGII AR5 Summary for Policymakers’ (April 2014) International Panel on Climate Change: Geneva, p.23
9. UNDP (2004), Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World, New York: United Nations Development Programme, p. 90.