Coming to the aid of an interdependent world

Tim Barnett, former Labour chief whip, has landed a big international job, combating AIDS, based in Cape Town. Helen Clark is pitching for chief of the United Nations Development Programme. That makes two points.

One is that many of our bright people do big jobs elsewhere. The other is that ours, for all its frequent small-village myopia, is a very internationalised society, inextricably wired into a world in which nations and peoples are increasingly interdependent.

New Zealanders know about economic interdependency: foreigners own their mortgages and employers, buy their exports and holidays and supply most of their consumer goods.

New Zealanders are becoming aware of security interdependency: the irritating indignities at airports remind them.

New Zealanders are less aware of environmental interdependency because of the benign climate (compare and contrast Victoria right now). But they are less aware that China’s pollution falls on California, even at times on Europe, and that water no longer flows across national borders as it did, which has serious future consequences for food and peace.

New Zealanders are less aware still of the interdependency inherent in “aid”.

Aid is mostly thought of as something given, via international agencies or the government aid system, to benighted black and brown people and those ravaged by dictators, war, famine or environmental disaster in faraway places. It’s a feel-good activity.

That sort of help is akin to the charity dispensed by the well-off to the indigent in times past within rich countries. It is a moral act.

But a bigger part of aid nowadays is development. Handouts to alleviate starvation leave people prey to starvation in future. Development enables people permanently to leave poverty behind, to take charge of their lives. That is an economic act.

That sort of help is akin to what our sorts of “developed” societies did in the twentieth century by extending educational opportunities, good health care and good housing to the less well off and the least well off.

That way they were more productive and contributed more to the economy. It turned out to be in everyone’s economic interests for everyone to have a genuine opportunity to make the most of their abilities. The economy as a whole worked better and society as a whole got richer.

As for national economies then, so for the global economy now. The interdependencies which were recognised within national economies are paralleled nowadays by the interdependencies between national economies — and between the globe’s rich and the globe’s poor.

An example: petrol costs more than it needs in part because of social and political breakdown in west Africa. Real economic development (which depends in part on real political development, itself a major development issue) could fix that.

Nations are still jealous of borders. But increasingly — especially rich and rapidly enriching nations — they need international agreements and institutions for their national economies to work well. New Zealand is bound up with hundreds of treaties, some of which limit Parliament’s scope.

The credit crunch and the deepening recession (depression?) underline the interdependencies. No one is being spared.

For fast developing economies like China it means plunging exports and stalling growth. For lesser-developed economies, it is disaster: capital flows have dried to a trickle, migrants’ remittances are plummeting and rich countries are tightening budgets.

This was the message Eckhard Deutscher, who chairs the OECD’s development assistance committee, brought to Wellington two weeks back. Deutscher quoted the World Bank: “Every 1% drop in world growth adds 20 million people to the poverty count.” A fall from 4% growth last year to 0.5% this year will push 70 million back into poverty on top of the 100 million last year’s food crisis pushed into extreme poverty.

Deutscher’s argument was blunt: “Development cooperation is no charity. It is a strategic investment in a common future that we can only shape collectively.”

The “we” are the nation-states. A common future requires global agencies, acting globally, not nations acting separately. Some signs are emerging. Deutscher instanced the alliance between donor and recipient countries at Accra last September. And multilateral agencies, being supranational, have a global brief.

The agency Barnett is joining, the World AIDS Campaign, is a “civil society” group funded by the Dutch and British governments which supports AIDS-fighting groups in low-income Africa. His job is to expand into the Americas, Arab countries and eastern Europe and central Asia.

Clark’s job is at the government end. The United Nations is a huge, unwieldy, politics-ridden, ramshackle machine — “inter-nation-al”, not global. Much more disciplined management a tighter focus are needed.

Clark is not known for gentle tolerance of sloppy managers. But this would be a big job. National jealousies do not respect the common interest.

Whose interests would it serve if she succeeded? New Zealand’s (among many). That’s interdependency.