The future of development aid after COVID-19: four necessary shifts

By Grace Avila Casanova

For decades, Official Development Assistance (ODA) agencies have been operating under a post-World War II “aid” narrative, an often patronising and hard-to-prove-effective system designed to end poverty in the developing world. Global challenges such as COVID-19, show that the advancement and preservation of humankind require an urgent shift in the international cooperation system – one that is based on global solidarity.

Two thirds of the world’s population live in developing countries and are facing unprecedented economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic. A redistribution of aid from wealthier to poorer countries is necessary. It is clear that in facing a global health crisis, fragile economies will struggle to minimise the spread of coronavirus while coping with the financial consequences of social distancing. The traditional “aid” framework does not fit the dimensions of the problems at hand. The current system is based upon short-term transfers and its narrative suggests that the “problem” is poor people living in poor countries and the “answer” is ODA resource transfers, as suggested by Development Economist Andy Sumner. Besides, “development” is approached as a process countries go through within borders. Quite a problematic approach, given today’s borderless crisis.

Instead, a potentially better “aid” framework would consider that the “problem” is that poverty and inequality are “global bads” and the “answer” is collective global action. In this scenario, the role of “aid” in development would shift from being an external driver to supporting inclusive development processes, co-managed global public funds, knowledge transfer and international development policy coherence.

Davos 2020. Credit:

Four needed shifts

Plenty of global challenges are to be expected in the coming years including environmental disasters, biodiversity loss, natural catastrophes and failure to mitigate climate change, global governance failure, political polarisation and financial crises. To prepare, four important shifts must take place:

1. The world needs a new development model to strive for, and innovative mechanisms to implement it. We must stop legitimising the narrative of othering. The responsibility of the international community does not stop when countries reach the “middle income” goal. It must continue as long as inequality exists.

For a global effort to curb coronavirus, international cooperation dynamics need to depart genuinely from the “aid” mentality. It is patronising and its theoretical approach fails to portray development as a process beyond reaching financial goals. For recipient countries, the process of overcoming poverty and inequality comes with a collective sense of empowerment. Perpetrating the lack of ownership and active participation in overcoming these challenges will not get us any closer to reaching all 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

2. We must put nationalism aside. Cooperation is in everyone’s interest. Yet, at a time of intensifying nationalism and growing political and economic tensions between the world’s leading economic powers, coordinated international action is proving difficult to materialise. These are rather problematic attitudes as the world is confronted with a cooperation paradox. If we don’t cooperate, we risk our very existence. But for cooperation to be effective, the thinking that underpins much development cooperation needs to change; and for that, world leaders to first and foremost cooperate.

3. International Cooperation bodies have a critical role in enhancing efforts to reskill or upskill workforces in low and middle income countries against the expected displacement of millions of jobs as a result of technological change. Current development agendas will not be up to labour market needs, for instance, when automation and hostile artificial intelligence aggravate the vulnerabilities of the workforce in the poorest countries. Similarly to the architecture of International Cooperation, the current model of higher education runs on a model designed for 20th century needs. The fourth industrial revolution, powered by artificial intelligence will require higher education to develop greater capacity for ethical and intercultural understanding, placing a premium on liberal arts-type education with modifications to adapt to the particular issues raised by technologies and their disruptions to society.

4. We need a better version of globalisation. The novel coronavirus proliferated via global market activities. It is unclear whether countries will come together and respond to this and all other global crises to come, by relying on the same market dynamics that led to this pandemic. The world must re-organise itself to mitigate the risks deriving from climate change and pandemics. Although this will require historical innovation, major crises often open the political space for revolutionary reforms. Precisely at a time when multilateralism is in retreat, perhaps the fear and losses resulting from coronavirus will incentivise efforts to bring about a better version of globalisation.

Young boy reading during South Africa Covid-19 lockdown

The post-coronavirus process represents a unique opportunity to build global development finance institutions, where all countries, poor and rich, are active in pooling the resources to tackle crises such as COVID-19 and climate change. As Global Public Investment (GPI) proponent, Jonathan Glennie writes in Development Initiatives, “Global Public Investment will require all countries in the world to contribute, according to ability, and through which all countries will benefit, according to need. While money will come mainly from governments, affected communities and civil society will play another essential function.”

Coronavirus is likely to spur a new wave of international cooperation of the sort that emerged after WWII. But in 2020, the scenario is different. Increasing interconnectedness has opened up the world to enormous cross-border flows of data, goods, services, money, and people. The scale and scope of today’s version of globalisation has made the world unprecedentedly interdependent — and thus fragile. No country can defeat this pandemic in isolation. Collectively, we have a great wealth of knowledge and experience in collaborating to defeat epidemics. The sharing of expertise, technology, and medical resources will be at the forefront of battling this crisis. COVID-19 might be the pandemic that taught us that global solidarity is not just philanthropy – it is fundamental to our very existence. 

Grace is Business Sustainability specialist and Co-Founder of Impacto International

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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