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Speech at the Irish Launch of the European Year of Development

Dublin Castle, 22nd January 2015

Tá fíoráthas orm a bheith anseo libh ar fad chun Bliain Eorpach na Forbartha a sheoladh in Éirinn, agus ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Dóchas as ucht a gcuiridh caoin labhairt libh tráthnóna. [I am sincerely very pleased to be here with you all as we launch the European Year of Development in Ireland, and I would like to thank Dóchas for their kind invitation to address you this afternoon.]

The decision by the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union to designate 2015 as the European Year of Development could not have been more timely. Indeed 2015 is a seminal year for the future of human development, as the nations of the world have engaged in two processes of negotiations of immense, and interrelated, importance: one on the UN’s post-2015 development agenda; and the other on climate change.

The choices that will be made at the end of the year in relation to both agendas will have a real impact on this and future generations. Our decision-makers are presented with a unique opportunity to address the most urgent and fundamental needs of millions of people around the world, people who have the right, and seek the means and the freedom, to live their lives in dignity. And it is a task for all of us – elected representatives, NGO workers, students, activists and, simply, concerned citizens – to use whatever means we have at our disposal to ensure that the governments who represent us conduct these multilateral negotiations with real commitment and an appropriate sense of urgency.

Last week, addressing a gathering of Irish Ambassadors and Heads of Mission in this same venue, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson told them how, in her view, this year 2015 is comparable to 1945, a year of reconstruction and hope, when new institutions were designed, new texts drafted, and new declarations adopted for humanity’s shared future. Referring to the very tight schedule of both streams of negotiations, she talked, not of the “road”, but of the “race” to Paris and New York.

A successful set of outcomes requires detailed preparations, a review of previous practice, appropriate indicators to measure implementation, and above all a willingness to discard the burden of previous obstacles to mutual and equal respect for context and cultures.

The deadlines, as I have said, are very tight: the post-2015 sustainable development agenda – meant to complete the Millennium Development Goals’ unfinished business of eradicating extreme poverty in this generation – is due to be adopted at the Special Summit on Sustainable Development in New York in September 2015. The new climate change global agreement, for its part, is due to be signed two months later, in Paris in December 2015.

Of course the two processes are profoundly interconnected. Recent years have seen the food security and livelihoods of millions of men, women and children seriously undermined by unusually severe floods, droughts, and rises in sea levels. Beyond its obvious scientific aspects, we should also look at climate change in a holistic way, in terms of its consequences on the realisation of human rights.[1] Indeed it is becoming increasingly obvious that the effects of extreme weather events threaten the effective enjoyment of a range of basic human rights, such as the right to safe water and food, and the right to health and adequate housing.

These connections between climate change and human rights have been emphasised by, among others, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the post-2015 development goals, Ms Amina Mohammed, whom I had the pleasure of welcoming to Áras an Uachtaráin last Thursday. Referring to the hellish violence that is devastating the lives of the people – and those of women and girls in particular – in her region of origin, North-Eastern Nigeria, Ms Mohammed explained to me how she saw a link between the destruction of agriculture, the resulting unemployment and young people’s disenfranchisement and resort to violent action.

Thus the climate change agenda is deeply intertwined with the development agenda, including through the presence or absence of a human rights dimension in the definition and practice of development initiatives.

Another key discussion for this year 2015 concerns the unlocking of the necessary financial resources available at global level. The outcome of the International Conference on Financing for Development – to be held in Addis Ababa in July of this year – is of crucial importance to the effective implementation of the post-2015 development agenda: should governments, non-governmental organisations, the wider civil society and business sector entities fail to agree, the chances to deliver this agenda will be gravely imperilled.

I am delighted to say that Ireland is well-positioned to make a constructive contribution to these critical negotiations underway on the future of international development. Our country has solid experience of multilateral negotiations; our membership in both the European Union and the UN Human Rights Council endows us with additional leverage; and Ireland has a well-respected aid-programme – of which all of the civil society organisations represented here this afternoon are important co-actors. Furthermore, as a European country without a coloniser’s legacy, Ireland also enjoys particular empathy with, and sympathy from, many non-Western countries.

Ireland’s appointment, together with Kenya, as one of two co-facilitators of the negotiations on the post-2015 UN development agenda is, therefore, both an honour and a critical opportunity for our country – civil society included – to contribute to advancing a strong global agenda through a process that gives voice to those most affected by global inequalities.

In doing so, my view is that we – elected representatives, academics and practitioners in the field – must start by revising our traditional definitions of development, with their undertones of enduring divisions between the North and the South. We are invited, instead, to piece together a new narrative telling us of humanity’s shared future on this fragile planet.

Too often has the term ‘development’ been used interchangeably, in public discourse, with the terms ‘aid’ or ‘charity’. Development was presented as something that needed to happen in the so-called ‘developing’ world, outside of the sphere of industrialised nations, and remote from the daily existences of Western citizens. Such a binary view of development can all too easily slide into a sense of condescension grounded in unspoken feelings of superiority. At the very least, it divides the world in two, with one side depicted as helpless victims, and the other as their well-meaning saviours.

Development, the possibility of flourishing in one’s community and culture, and access to the means to do so, is not simply a gift to be meted out by a gracious benefactor; it is both a right and a moral obligation.[2] Development should be driven by well-informed citizens that insist on their governments implementing sound policies grounded in normative imperatives of justice, equality and dignity.

Moreover, simplistic oppositions between “Northern” and “Southern” countries risk obscuring the fact that, in many ways, elements of “the South” are now in “the North”, and that, vice versa, some features of “the North” have migrated to “the South”. Indeed the high levels of youth unemployment experienced in many European countries, the recent debt crises, the existing and looming poverty and the consequences of externally-imposed fiscal rectitude which can strain democratic legitimacy itself, are but some of the phenomena which must prompt us to interrogate the relevance of old distinctions between “developed” and “developing worlds”. Food security, gender equality, dignity – these are core, universal values that are valid for any society across the globe, and that have to be lodged within a plurality of policy options vindicated by practice.

The climate challenge and the urgency of other global environmental and social issues (such as, for example, the scale of the refugees problem), further expose the need to go beyond thinking in binary terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. All of us are called on to complete a shift in mindset and discourse – to take part, not just in a North-South conversation, but in a conversation about our humanity itself.

As the great leader and visionary, Nelson Mandela, put it:

“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronisingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”[3]

We can only rejoice, then, at the universal scope of the development goals currently in the making at UN level. Contrary to their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, which were targeted at poorer countries, these new post-2015 goals are not about some of the world’s nations only; they are about the crucial task of building new forms of living together, here and there. It is an agenda everybody can own and contribute to. In the North as in the South, the legitimacy and soundness of the dominant paradigms of development and growth that we have inherited are being challenged. This is surely to be welcomed but it leaves us with a set of practical and moral challenges.

As we set to the task of crafting new models of development and growth, we cannot, I believe, avoid tackling the root causes of the blatant and growing inequalities that plague our world. During my recent visit to Africa, I was impressed by the achievements of many African countries in improving access to education and health services, building up their agricultural and food production sector, and in protecting the rights of women. Yet, I also witnessed first-hand the many basic needs and fundamental rights that are unfulfilled. Indeed the overall – and most welcome – improvements in global human development indicators should not mask the great poverty and suffering that exist in many parts of the globe, including, as I have just said, in the world’s more affluent countries.

Most of you here will be familiar with Oxfam’s latest research on inequality, published last Monday ahead of the Davos World Economic Forum, which warns that, on current trends, the richest 1% in the world will own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016. This is but the last in a series of recent studies which have convincingly shown that the contemporary trends in inequalities are underpinned by a concentration of financial capital in the hands of a few. One related problem which is central to the future of international development is that posed by the encroachments of highly mobile speculative capital onto the ‘real’ economy. This is an issue that faces all nations, one which – alongside other global issues such as the use of natural resources, gender equality and the provision of jobs for young people – requires concerted action at the global level.

The destructive effects of unregulated global financial markets are particularly evident in relation to what remains the most pressing of challenges, namely food security. In addressing this challenge, we must indeed consider the global infrastructure of commodity trading and the alarming level of control speculators have acquired over the commodities futures market. According to a paper my friend Professor Howard Stein presented at a conference at Trinity College Dublin in 2012: 

“It is estimated that 61% of the wheat futures market was held by speculators in 2011 compared to only 12% in the mid-90s prior to deregulation.”[4]

The problems posed by the financialisation of the economy have been identified by a multitude of scholars and analysts, and denounced with renewed urgency since the global financial meltdown of 2008. This perhaps indicates that the golden days of a particularly strident version of neo-liberal economics lie behind us, and I very much welcome the fact that, after many decades, the role of the State is again being recognised as essential for responding to both novel global challenges and the destructive effects of self-regulating financial markets.

There are, then, many encouraging signs that a radical rethinking of our economic models is underway, not least in the UN Secretary General’s preparatory synthesis report, The Road to Dignity by 2030,[5] which refers to the need to control international finance and suggests alternative measurements of growth.

All of us can also with great benefit delve into the critique of the failed paradigm of development expounded by non-Western countries, as analysed, for example, by Vijay Prashad in his book The Poorer Nations. A Possible History of the Global South.

In this book, Professor Prashad documents in particular the manner in which ‘Third World’ countries have progressively been confined to a marginal, subaltern role in the multilateral system, and how the most powerful Western countries sought, and to some degree, succeeded in undermining international institutions such as the UNCTAD, whose policy framers are known to have been particularly vigorous in their defence of an alternative to neo-liberalism.

There is a new, multipolar world in the throes of emergence. The opportunities are real to depart from the biased practices such as those described by Vijay Prashad in order to deliver a new architecture of legitimate and well-resourced multilateral institutions – based on genuine representativeness, an ability to translate agreed principles into action, and a recognition of the intergenerational nature of our responsibility towards the planet.

This will be an essentially political process, with governments playing the central role. But this process will succeed only if it is nurtured by the energy, creativity and legitimacy of a wide range of social actors. Parliaments and citizens must not avert their gaze. They must hold governments to account to ensure that decisions are truly based on the needs of the people, including those who are marginalised and most vulnerable, our sisters and brothers in the human family. I believe that all of you who are here this afternoon, and all of Ireland’s NGOs who are concerned with global justice and development, can, each in their own way, and according to their own means, contribute to creating the right atmosphere for such a transformation – the atmosphere of a new moment in global relations that can yield a new integrated and culturally sensitive version of development.

All of you here know that there is no single correct model of development; you fully appreciate the importance of context and place. The idea of a linear path to progress and modernity is one that has created much damage in the past, as the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, recognised in his speech in acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize:

“The idea that there is one people in possession of the truth, one answer to the world’s ills, or one solution to humanity’s needs, has done untold harm throughout history.”[6]

The majority of the solutions to poverty reduction and climate change lie outside of the Western world, in those countries where infrastructure must be built; where more food has to be produced for an expanding population; where natural resources, and in particular our planet’s largest forests, are located. Let us, then, do everything that we can to support those countries as they imagine and craft their own development path.

2015 presents us with both huge challenges and opportunities. It will require brave and wise decisions from world leaders. It will also require vigilance and activism among Ireland’s NGO workers, parliamentarians, public intellectuals, academics, and beyond, to ensure that our policies are sourced in global welfare and that our policy-makers deliver on their promises.

I feel confident to say that the actions undertaken by Dóchas and other civil society organisations throughout Ireland and the European Union will be of immense value in making 2015 a milestone in the history of humanity’s development, and I wish you all the very best in your these endeavours.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

[1] NB – Climate Change is largely the field of environmentalists and natural scientists who do not always make justice to the people-centred perspective associated with the human rights approach.

[2] Cf. Simone Weil: “It is an eternal obligation towards the human being not to let him suffer from hunger when one has the chance of coming to his assistance. This obligation being the most obvious of all, it can serve as a model on which to draw up the list of eternal duties towards each human being.”

[3] Mandela, N. 2000. Address at Healing and Reconciliation Service: The Healing of our Land. Johannesburg, South Africa.

[4] Stein, H. 2012. “The Neoliberal Policy Paradigm and the Great Recession.” Panoeconomicus, 2012, 4, pp. 421-440.

[5] United Nations. December 2014. The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet. Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Agenda.

[6] Annan, K. 2001. Nobel Lecture on occasion of accepting Nobel Peace Prize. Oslo.