In February 2008 I was invited to a curious event in Olomouc, in the Czech Republic. The event, entitled The relevance of research institutions to development cooperation, brought together academics from key institutions where Development Studies as a subject was taught in Western Europe – and I was representing what was then IDPM and is now the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester. With me were academics from other Development Studies institutions across Western Europe, joined by colleagues from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. The latter, described as ‘New Donors’ at the time, all to different degrees had started or were about to start programmes in Development Studies in order to become ‘better’ New Donors, and hoped for advise and practical recommendations from us, their Western European counterparts. Why am I reminded of this event now?
This is the case for two reasons: One reason is the decisive victory of Victor Urbán in the recent Hungarian elections, based partly on the simple message to keep foreigners out, close borders and focus on restoring the greatness of Hungary as a nation. This was commented upon by a German politician with the words that those countries in Eastern Europe (meaning Hungary but also referring to Poland and the Czech Republic in particular, all characterised by similar dynamics) had more than 40 years of development to catch up with and while one could not condone such narrow-minded views that focus solely on national restoration, one could surely understand those views – well, the Cold War ended in 1989, not yesterday!
The second reason is a book review of my 2014 book Legacies of Socialist Solidarity that has just come out in the Journal of Development Studies, written by a scholar of Eastern European background now based at Maynooth University in the Republic of Ireland. Her review stands out in that it is the only of numerous reviews of my book that reminds the reader of the multiple acts of solidarity and exchange, of what I call a form of ‘socialist cosmopolitanism’ in some of my own work, that characterised the period of socialism in Eastern Europe. Far from being ‘lost years’, this was for many a period of development alternatives and different forms of solidarity and engagement with the ‘Third World’. Yes, like Western development aid it was messy and characterised as much by self-interest as by ‘true’ solidarity. But, as I also discuss at length in my book, the East was not this blank slate, a space best described by non-development that was now brought back into the brave new world of the ‘end of history’ narrative following in the footsteps of Fukuyama.
Already when I attended the above mentioned event in Olomouc the term ‘New Donor’ irritated me greatly as a fundamentally misguided description of the past and the present. I am truly grateful to Ela Drążkiewicz, the reviewer of my book, for focusing on this misconception in her review, a misconception that defined Eastern European aid providers as emerging in contrast to Western players who were traditional donors (and who were to be seen as THE model, as the framing of the event in Olomouc as one example demonstrated). Yes, when Eastern European states joined the EU in the early 2000s, they were required to establish Official Development Assistance structures that would replicate OECD/DAC models, as Drążkiewicz points out. And their labelling as ‘New Donors’ made their inferiority visible for everybody to see, being presented as lacking experience and as needing to follow the guidance of the ‘mature’ Western donors.
In my book I come to the conclusion that the legacies of what was before, the rich history of socialist countries’ involvement in development cooperation and the ‘Third World’ more generally often only lives on in the lives of individuals who were part of it – and election results like that in Hungary seem to vindicate such an interpretation, as hardly any political party exists in many former socialist Eastern European countries that advocates a different interpretation of history and solidarity, and gains broader electoral approval. Nevertheless, and this is the second point I am grateful for in the review, we should be vary of those who simply prioritise Western approaches to foreign aid practice over socialist ones, or other conceptions of development alternatives – and by extension indirectly accept xenophobia, anti-immigration resentment and anti-solidarity policies. In times not only of election victories like those in Hungary but also Brexit and renewed vilification of certain countries based on Cold War rhetoric, a reminder that different forms of solidarity, whether inspired by socialist, humanist or cosmopolitan beliefs, is badly needed.