The word “development” has long been associated with the Western project of promoting technological and economic “progress” for the world’s marginalized countries. The thinking has been: With enough support to build major infrastructure projects, expand private property rights, and build market regimes, the poor nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia can escape their poverty and become "modern" -- prosperous, happy consumers and entrepreneurs poised to enter a bright future driven by economic growth and technology.
That idea hasn’t worked out so well.
As climate change intensifies, the ecological implications of growth-based “development” are now alarming if not fatuous. The 2008 financial crisis exposed the sham of self-regulating “free markets” and the structural political corruption, consumer predation and wealth inequality that they tend to entail. And culturally, people are starting to realize, even in poorer countries, that the satisfactions of mass consumerism are a mirage. A life defined by a dependency on global markets and emulation of western lifestyles is a pale substitute for a life embedded in native cultures, languages and social norms, and enlivened by working partnerships with nature and peers.
It is therefore exciting to learn that Agence Française de Développement (AFD) – the French development agency, based in Paris – is actively considering the commons as a “future cornerstone of development.”
A key voice for this shift in perspective at AFD is Chief Economist Gaël Giraud, who boldly acknowledges that “growth is no longer a panacea.” He compares the current economic predicament to the plight of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, who had to keep running faster and faster just to stay in the same place. (For a short video interview with Giraud, in French, click here. Here is an AFD webpage devoted to various commons issues.)
In a blog post outlining his views of the commons and development (and not necessarily reflecting those of AFD), Giraud cited the loss of biodiversity of species as a major reason for a strategic shift in “development” goals. “The last mass extinction phase [of five previous ones in the planet’s history] affected dinosaurs and 40% of animal species 65 million years ago,” writes Giraud. “At each of these phases, a substantial proportion of fauna was lost within a phenomenon of a massive decline of biodiversity.”
Cultural diversity is equally important to our survival, Giraud noted. He noted that “the wealth of languages, and therefore of cultures, has as much value as biodiversity….We destroy a lot at the cultural level, and consequently the possibility of coming up with solutions tailored to specific environments. It involves fighting against cultural uniformity, which Jacques Derrida called “Global-Latinization.”
Why is all of this a concern to a development agency like AFD?
Citing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September 2015, Giraud writes that it is becoming quite clear that the whole idea of a Global North separate from the Global South no longer makes sense. “The bulk of our problems are now shared, in a world where the North-South border is tending to disappear.” Faced with existential global problems, the us/them distinctions of another era are a diversion from finding the solutions we need.
“Our greatest challenges concern the resilience of societies, in the North and South alike, faced with climate change, pollution and the progressive scarcity of mining resources, but also faced with the disruption of social ties caused in particular by the violent political reactions to ecological problems. The Syrian disaster was triggered by the 2007-2010 drought, without, of course, all of this crisis being due to the drought alone. The congress organized by the World Bank last spring on ‘The State of the Economy – The State of the World’ recorded this point: we economists have the unfortunate tendency of underestimating the impact of these upheavals. The truth is that they now represent a greater threat than the nuclear risk, for example.”
Giraud sees the commons as helping the world deal with many problems because “pooling resources with rules for sharing is an essential resilience factor. Development must involve a renewed understanding by institutions, which have already allowed communities in the past, and will allow them in the future, to preserve, develop and promote common, cultural or natural resources.”(original emphasis).
By this understanding, a preeminent development goal must be to preserve diversity – in species, habitat, culture – and the uniqueness of life wherever it may be. Given the nature of the global economy and capitalism as now structured, however, this means that we need to re-imagine “development” itself.
Giraud concedes that there are many major challenges in understanding the commons in today’s context:
How can we move from local experiences to more globalized management methods for the main global commons? What is the State’s role in the management of commons? Some people, such as Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, the authors of The Common: An Essay on the 21stCentury Revolution (La Découverte, Paris, 2014), argue that the State has nothing to do with the commons and embodies an obstacle to their management.
At AFD, we feel that while the State must not necessarily directly manage these commons, (which would ipso facto become public goods), it must create the conditions for possibilities for the emergence of commons within civil society and the private sector.(original emphasis) For example, promote the creativity of civil society to form coalitions and manage commons – through NGOs, cooperatives, etc. The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI) network is a wonderful example of joint management, at international level, of the cheap drugs industry in order to fight against diseases for which there is no solvent customer base with regard to the standard criteria of the traditional private sector. (original emphasis) It is a fundamental initiative for health in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, and who can have any doubt today, after H1N1 or Ebola in particular, that health for all is a global common good?
The AFD took a major step toward actualizing a new vision when it convened a major conference on the commons in Paris on December 1-2, 2016, bringing together a variety of academics, policy experts, commoners, economists, and activists. I have not seen any formal presentation of the conference on the AFD website yet, but I have heard from colleagues that it was a remarkable event that augurs promising new steps toward commons-oriented development.
In the meantime, the AFD website states its ambitions plainly: “AFD has set up a crosscutting process of reflection on these subjects, involving research and operational officers. It calls on academics from all disciplines, as well as consultants and politicians, with the aim of building a common knowledge and understanding of the operationalization of the Commons for a development assistance agency. To what extent do the Commons renew our understanding of contexts, and our support for the public policies and projects we finance?”
In this time of dismal political news, AFD’s leadership on the commons is a sign of hope, sanity and the potential for planetary reconstruction.