1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Special Events (2000 - 2009)

The Road not Taken: International Aid's Choice of Copenhagen over Beijing (Draft)

Background paper prepared for the UNRISD report "Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World"

The origins of this paper lie in a proposal from UNRISD that I contribute to one of the series of background papers commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the Beijing Women Conference. The suggestion was that within the series on the Changing Political Economy of Development I explore the extent to which Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRS) are a genuine innovation or alternative to former international development policy approaches, contextualising this with reference to the PRS process in Bolivia about which I had already written (Eyben 2002, 2003, 2004, Eyben and León 2003).

Taking this suggestion as a starting point and, writing from a disciplinary perspective of social anthropology rather than political economy, my response was to explore how the international aid system ‘thinks’ and therefore ‘knows’ and how that thinking shapes policy possibilities and ignores or trivialises potential alternatives. This present paper should be read very much as work in progress. After many years as a policy practitioner, it is only recently that I have been able to begin this exploration, including a reflexive revisiting to my own actions, beliefs and knowledge. Thus, I have written the paper from the perspective of what I am now, an academic social analyst, as well as from the perspective of what I have been, a former aid official. Throughout the 1990’s I was working for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) on poverty, participation and gender issues. Between 2000 and 2002 I was head of the DFID office in Bolivia at the time its Poverty Reduction Strategy was being developed and initially implemented.

As an aid official, I was very much engaged in debating and negotiating concepts and issues of gender and poverty with other practitioners and policymakers including with those in government bilateral aid ministries, in international NGOs and in the United Nations and International Finance Institutions. All of these organisations together make up what I shall refer to as the international aid system. In that system I saw myself involved in a contest between different kinds of knowledge that was shaped by relations of power. In the last two years I have come to appreciate increasingly my own ‘situatedness’, one that even shaped my moral position on the meaning of development (Ufford et al. 2003). I was ‘passionately concerned and ethically engaged’. (Rosaldo 1989: 169). At the same time, I was not only a ‘missionary’ but also a civil servant—a ‘mandarin’ (Miller and Razavi 1998). I had a duty to my Minister, and through the Minister to a democratically elected parliament, to implement, rather than shape policy. The ambiguity of my own position is not unusual and in different ways may have shaped the actions and beliefs of many of those in the aid system, including those of economists who are the dominant profession in the system.

The imagery of the ‘road not taken’ allows me to explore how decisions are produced and choices made. I argue that the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) were a product of a long-standing struggle within the international aid system between left and right wing economists—and that this struggle took place within well defined parameters of possibilities that largely ignored or discounted the significance of society, culture, identity and power as concepts that can help us interpret and seek to bring about change.

To illustrate my argument I have chosen to compare the context, themes and outcomes of the two United Nations conferences, held within six months of each other in 1995, that is the World Summit on Social Development at Copenhagen and the Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing. They were two in a series of inter-governmental policymaking events taking place in the decade following the collapse of communism. These and the other conferences in the series (such as the one on Environment at Rio in 1992 and on Population in 1994) were typified by significant parallel gatherings (fora) of representatives from global and national civil society.

The Beijing Conference, held twenty years after the first in Mexico, was able to take advantage of the heady atmosphere of the immediate post Cold War period to recognise the significance of the international women’s movement as represented in the parallel civil society forum and to propose in the Beijing Platform for Action an explicit agenda of transformational change. National governments, civil society and the international aid system were all assigned responsibilities in implementing that agenda.

The Copenhagen conference, decided later but held some six months earlier did not have the same historical roots. It was a one-off event that brought together the heads of most governments in the world to agree a programme of action in relation to reducing poverty, reducing unemployment and promoting social integration. The symbolic culmination of the international aid system’s growing interest in poverty as the over-arching issue for development, Copenhagen set the scene for the choice of poverty reduction as the framework for international debt relief. Its target of reducing world poverty by half by 2015 was chosen as the first Millennium Development Goal.

Copenhagen set the scene for the aid system’s over-arching policy instrument, the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP). Beijing became invisible to the mainstream. Could it have been otherwise? The poet decides to take the road less travelled. Is this impossible for development policy? Can the gender equality agenda still provide an opening to different ways of thinking about economy, society and politics that would allow international aid to support transformative processes for social justice?

In exploring this question, the paper starts, in section one, with a discussion of the road that was taken, namely the PRSP process as it developed at the end of the 19990’s and in the context of Bolivia. I describe my own initial experience of the country at the beginning of the year 2000 when I arrived in Cochabamba at the time of the ‘water war’ that has become one of the iconic stories of the global social justice movement. This unexpected introduction to Bolivia led to me looking at conflict in Bolivia as being as much about the interpretation of history and concepts of identity as about access to a resource, a theme that I return to in my conclusion. The second part of this section then describes the consultations and decisions that were made in relation to the Bolivian PRSP and briefly considers the treatment of gender in that process.

In section two, I enter the realm of fantasy and look at how donors might have behaved differently in Bolivia if the international aid system had selected the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action as the overarching framework for assistance, rather than the concept of poverty emerging from the Copenhagen conference. In so doing I imagine a world in which donors would engage seriously with concepts of society, culture and power as legitimate ways of understanding human action and I conclude this section by asking whether the implications of taking these concepts seriously would have been so radical that to save itself the system had no choice but to reject them.

I pursue this question in the third section of the paper where I leave Bolivia and return to the global arena. I explore how those advocating the poverty reduction element of the Copenhagen agenda dominated the decision-making processes of international development policy and I discuss how the opportunity to take up the Beijing agenda was not fulfilled. In conclusion, I ask what is the potential for the international aid system to define development, not just in terms of aid instruments, such as PRSPs or targets, such as Millennium Development Goals, but as also about transformational processes and relationships?