Social movements, global summits and China

Conferences rarely produce wonderfully photogenic moments. Either, speakers are caught at a lectern displaying what may kindly be called ‘conference face’…

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Credit: Gage Skidmore (www.flickr.com/gageskidmore)

… or, worse, you come away with a grainy smartphone shot showing rows of people and an overexposed screen in the distance:

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Despite this, the world of development invests untold millions in hosting conferences, summits and workshops each year. Earlier this week, the Bond conference bravely dedicated a session to exploring whether or not global processes and conferences are actually a force for good or if we could achieve the same or, perhaps, better outcomes  by just ‘getting on with things’. Would a world without the SDGs be any better or worse than the one we have? Were it not for COP 21, would global warming be any higher up or lower down the political agenda? In many respects, of course, it is a moot point – we don’t have a control planet devoid of global processes and international summits, so it is impossible for us to know for certain whether or not they are a force for good. But it is certainly a question worth asking and it was refreshing to see a conference that, albeit hesitantly, questioned its own right to exist!

Given the diversity of countries on the planet, can processes ever be truly ‘global’? While the drafters of the Sustainable Development Goals argue that they are applicable to all countries, is that borne out by the content of the goals? Or does this one-size-fits-all approach devalue the goals? To take but one example, the maternal mortality goal commits countries to reduce maternal mortality to less than 70 per 100,000 live births. The UK already has a rate of 9 per 100,000 – so does that mean that the UK can sit back and take it easy? Or are there ways that that rate could be slashed to equal or even beat that of Poland or Greece, whose rate stands at just 3 deaths per 100,000? And what happens when a country fails to reach the goals it has been set? Who loses their job when universal access to safe, clean water isn’t achieved? The lack of compulsion mechanisms – particularly among relatively more powerful countries – means that many global processes lack teeth. That isn’t to say that global processes do not achieve anything and, indeed, they may well galvanise action and commitments, but when all is said and done is the result a net positive or negative? Frustratingly, we may never know.

After grappling with this thorny issue, some light relief came from a session on social movements, including a presentation from Mumsnet. If you’re unfamiliar with Mumsnet, it’s a UK-based parenting network – a social network used largely by women with children. While it often appears in the news, it’s not what you would traditionally call a social movement – it’s more a discussion and debate space than a serious political platform. Yet it’s ‘apolitical’ nature is, counter-intuitively, where its political clout comes from. By featuring a wide range of content, such as reviews, tips and tricks, offers, it attracts a wide audience. In so doing, Mumsnet has become a prime space for discussion and debate among British women (and some men, too) and so is capable of being used to organise and campaign for action. It is a vivid and, perhaps unexpected, display of the power of virtual association.

Finally, China. For some commentators, Chinese aid in Africa is to be viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. Its detractors claim that it is nothing but an ill-concealed attempt to grab resources and assure the loyalty of the countries of Africa. More often than not, this is contrasted with aid from the US and Europe, which is assumed to be benign and disinterested. The picture, of course, is much more complex and while this is not the place to go into details, a few pointers will help to illustrate the discussion:

  • China provides aid in different forms to other donors, but ‘different’ cannot be equated with ‘bad’
  • Chinese policy covers a huge range of actors from the government itself to private contractors – so assuming one coherent, consistent policy is naïve
  • While China brings money and power, it also brings new ideas about development that may be uncomfortable for Western donors. Closing your eyes and hoping they’ll go away, however, isn’t going to cut it.

A whistlestop tour through the Bond conference and apologies for omitting more than I included, but hopefully it gives a flavour of what was discussed and the breadth of the conference.