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In 10 years, what will international development cooperation look like?

Lack of certainty is exerting considerable pressure on many organizations seeking the coordinates to navigate a map that has become much more complex than it once was

An interactive map by the Spanish development agency AECID.
An interactive map by the Spanish development agency AECID.Ángel Arenas (AECID)

A couple of years ago, at a meeting of bilateral development cooperation agencies, a representative of one of them stated how, throughout his long career, he had never felt so overwhelmed by the amount and variety of challenges the sector faced, which he described as revolutionary. His intervention seemed like a trip back in time. Through it one could closely relate to a development cooperation map led by a few institutions, which had assumed the moral and economic responsibility to reduce the “sufferings” of the world, with the fight against poverty at the center of all of them.

That vision of revolutionary challenges is not so much linked to an apocalyptic state of things but, rather, to a poor understanding of the new wiring of the world

In his speech, there was virtually no reference to the fact that, today, international development cooperation is an exercise of global magnitude, defined by the consolidation of an increasingly dense network of both individual and shared interests, objectives, challenges and agendas, covering all kinds of issues, from human rights to cybersecurity, populated by a multitude of actors, organized in all kinds of sizes and forms, including multilateral organizations and government agencies, networks of unions or cities, foundations, platforms of influential NGOs, alliances of regional cooperatives, civil rights defenders associations, diaspora networks, and so on.

In my opinion, that vision of “revolutionary challenges” is not so much linked to an apocalyptic state of things but, rather, to a poor understanding of the new “wiring” of the world as well as the end of the cycle of a model that has mobilized for decades the international development sector. A study by the Brookings Institute (“Global Development Disrupted”) published earlier this year reflected it very well. It tested the opinions of 93 leaders of civil society, the private sector, government and philanthropy, and concluded with two clear messages. The first one is “the high level of disruption taking place in the traditional development ecosystem.” The second is the lack of certainty about what comes next.

This lack of certainty begins to exert considerable pressure on many organizations, which seek the coordinates to navigate, with the ease of yesterday, a map that has become much more complex; in the nature and variety of, among others, themes, actors and financing needs. As if that were not enough, it takes place in a context of enormous volatility, where an almost unlimited supply of political priorities coincides with fragile global commitments, and where immediate responses to address highly political challenges (immigration, security, etc.) are required at the expense of more systemic responses.

Is it possible to imagine a substantial increase in job opportunities and profitable investment in initiatives related to a more sustainable world?

From all this, key issues arise, very different from the thematic and geographical ones that previously starred in a central part of the debate. Those key issues, in my opinion, are the prerequisites for the emergence of new leaderships and solutions during these years. For example, how to face the widening gap between the development aspirations and the existing means, which force many relevant organizations to disconnect from innovative trends? How to reconcile the objectives and ways of working of traditional cooperation with the broader inertia of the new global agenda (Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs), which often requires institutional changes that are difficult to integrate? How to create new opportunities through the diversification of forms of financing and partnerships with different cooperation actors? How to integrate new work approaches and skills in areas such as finance, communication, data and knowledge management?

All these somewhat claustrophobic questions contrast with another part of the sector, which is experiencing an extraordinary moment. Today, the automatisms generated for decades by development cooperation as a highly specialized public policy, coexist with new formulas that far transcend the modus operandi of aid and reflect both a growing sensitivity and awareness of collective problems as well as a strong determination to take part in them. Moreover, they overcome much of the rigidity of international assistance by using more efficient and flexible solutions. Among these are mixed forms of management and financing, technological and digital applications, more efficient platforms to connect services with needs, better systematization and application of data and knowledge, the promotion of a private sector mentality that goes beyond immediate profit, and more.

This process of renewal is inevitable and offers considerable opportunities to those who are capable of transforming their vision and position themselves in a new phase. Aid must continue to exist and fulfill its function but, next to it, a massive reinvention of the sector is taking place. Is it possible to imagine a substantial increase, for example, in job opportunities and profitable investment in initiatives related, for example, to a more sustainable world? To materialize that enormous universe of opportunities and solutions is, in my view, the real revolutionary challenge, and one that the development cooperation sector of today and tomorrow should encourage more vigorously.

Carlos Buhigas Schubert is the founder of Col-lab.

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