COVID-19 and the phantasy of global development

COVID-19 has partly been discussed as a clear sign that we live in the times of global development: the world is interconnected and as a whole vulnerable, thus collective action is needed to overcome future challenges, including in the sphere of public health, and most visible perhaps in relation to climate change. I have never bought into the global development mantra as a potential new paradigm (rather than old wine in new bottles in the treadmill of ever increasing academic competition and re-branding), as I never found a convincing answer to the question: what’s new?

‘Tödlich – Deadly’: From the series Art and Protest – FridaysForFuture Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

The world has been deeply interlinked at least since the age of empire and colonialism (and many historians would draw out much longer-ago linkages based on similar structural conditions even if not quite as global), interdependent not only related to commerce and trade, but bound together in different ways by political domination, power structures and violence, locally, nationally and globally. Thus, even if the term ‘development’ and its various different meanings is often associated with the post WWII world order – global development has been with us for a very long time, even if not by name. Its quasi re-invention as something new that connects the geographical imaginary of the Global North and the Global South in a different way, where global institutions can be truly global (and development is not something done by the Global North to the Global South, as the term International Development is said to suggest), seemed to me little more than a phantasy even before COVID-19, not least as its invention neglects the post-colonial structures that still underpin the global world order.

Equally its suggestion that somehow suddenly we realize that major challenges, not least climate change, can only be addressed together as humanity, globally so to speak, seems a little odd for somebody who in the 1980s was on the streets as a teenager and young adult advocating for similar issues as FridaysforFuture do now (and there was a generation before me doing the same as well). Arguably, at least since the Industrial Revolution, global development has been a key feature of life on Earth – and it was rather a de-politicising focus on poverty that lead to an international development ideology that ignored the global or interconnected dimension at its peril.

COVID-19 in many ways as brought the problematic claims about global development as something different, something more solidaristic, potentially, to the fore. One sign of the fact that we have moved from international to global development is said to be the move from the millennium development goals to the sustainable development goals, the SDGs. The latter, it has been argued, in relating to all countries and requiring action from all, not only recognise global connectedness, but provide means to implement policies that take this connectedness into account. It thus seems quite astonishing that the SDGs and their role in potentially shaping a post-COVID-19 world are largely absent from any discussion about the future. Now one can say that the SDGs were not agreed to respond to humanitarian or health emergencies, but still, not least with the experience of Ebola in mind, not to have a separate goal on health emergencies, as demanded by some, seems a dangerous oversight.

And the global health security index makes clear that those countries that lack fundamental capacity to respond to future epidemics are mainly among low- and middle income countries (in addition to countries in the Global North with dysfunctional policies, but that is a different state of affairs). A clear sign, arguably, that the SDGs could have been the key forum to address such issues, not least as here global development as propagated by its advocates could have come into clear focus: It was in often resource poor countries of the Global South that the Ebola epidemic was successfully targeted, with many ups and downs but still, and from where important lessons could have been learned in relation to global public health at the times of COVID-19.

Instead, the key body in tackling global health emergencies, the World Health Organisation (WHO), however critical one might be of it, has been hollowed out. It in essence has to rely on what SDG 17 describes as the multi-stakeholder partnership – with Bill Gates among one of its biggest donors, whose foundation already shapes health budgets and priorities in many African countries. More generally, much of the agenda and spending on global health has been ‘outsourced’ to billionaire philanthropists, including those from so-called emerging economies. This is, however, not best explained with a global development paradigm, but as the result of the fact that the winners of global capitalism that has created global inequalities on a large scale in the Global North and Global South combined, who in fact undermine development worth the name through for example tax avoidance, can then act as saviours of the mess they helped produce and sustain with their actions and ideologies.

The very claim that COVID-19 affects us all has to be qualified to important degrees, and much of that qualification arguably takes place in different ways for the Global North and the Global South (however contentious this categorization is in the first place). While COVID-19 may be with us for a long time, and the effectiveness of any response is thus far too early to judge, there is a clear expectation that countries in the Global North will manage to deal with it, eventually, in a way that makes it manageable. Contrast that with the expectations about for example Africa, where any outbreak will  – in the public imaginary as well as that of the WHO – lead simply to disaster, following long established colonial tropes and post-colonial imaginaries.

COVID-19 thus brought to the fore prism-like the ideologies that underpin global capitalism since its emergence, the boundaries and zones of exclusions it needs to function, which always transcended clear geographical markers of North and South, but also helped enforce them at the same time – nothing new to report here. The erection of new borders and boundaries, new zones of exclusion and categories of people – be they suddenly discovered key workers or migrants from near and afar  – workers whose essential function is to keep a system of long-established dominance in place.

As always, change is likely to come only through bottom up struggles, and the boundaries erceted by COVID-19 may make such change much harder to achieve, in particular on a global scale.

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