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Bridging the Atlantic divide on development

Written by Simon Maxwell


The Report of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Task Force on Development has been launched in London today. Chaired by the Swedish Development Minister, Gunilla Carlsson, and by former Republican US Congressman Jim Kolbe, the report is described as a transatlantic call for renewed leadership and partnerships in global development. It deals with four subjects: development, democracy and security; climate change; food security; and effective support for development. There are recommendations covering all these areas, from a call for greater efforts on conflict resolution, the funding of adaptation to climate change, greater priority for agriculture, and greater transparency in aid.

One member of the audience at the launch said that there was nothing very new in the report, and that is probably true. The important thing, however, and speaking as a member of the task force, is that such a group reached agreement on anything, new or otherwise. Put together people from different countries, different sectors, different areas of specialisation, and different political persuasions, and the potential for misunderstanding and disagreement is substantial. This is all the more true when the group spans the North Atlantic. As I have observed before, George Bernard Shaw was close to the mark when he talked of two peoples separated by a single language.

Take the area I worked on, climate change. The Europeans are often prone to a strong caricature of US views on climate change: generally hostile to the very idea; convinced that if there is a problem, technology will solve it; determined that India and China should not be let off the hook of contributing to reduced emissions; happy to pour money into inefficient subsidies for US farmers to produce biofuels; and reluctant to spend the money developing countries will need to adapt to an inevitable rise in temperature. At the same time, some North Americans are inclined to think that Europeans exaggerate the issue, fail to understand the imperative of growth, are too soft on developing countries, and expect too much of international negotiations.

Well, it turns out that both caricatures are wrong, at least within this group of senior politicians, business people, policy-makers and academics. We agreed that:

  • Climate change is the biggest threat we face;
  • Emissions must be cut by 50% by 2050;
  • Both developed and developing countries must play their part, but in a differentiated way so as to allow development in poor countries;
  • A realistic carbon price must be set to encourage changes in behaviour;
  • Subsidies to US and EU biofuels should be phased out; and
  • The finance developing countries need for both mitigation and adaptation should be additional to existing aid pledges.

Compromises were needed by both sides to agree these and other recommendations on climate change. Carry them forward, and a deal in Copenhagen can be discerned. Work together on the basis of this list, and deal in Copenhagen might even be more likely. The same is true across the topics covered by the task force.

That is the kind of prize that the German Marshall Fund might have helped us to grasp. The aim was not new analysis, but rather new consensus. We do not speak for our countries, but we do speak in our countries, and in each other’s countries. In the US, there is a new administration. In Europe, there will be a new Commission later this year. ODI has been writing open letters to President Obama. Perhaps we will have more chance of being read if our messages are endorsed and taken up by members of the task force. Similarly, I have written with Jean Michel Debrat of the Agence Francaise de Developpement about a European response to the crisis. Perhaps the task force is a good vehicle for further dissemination of those ideas.

In short, the process mattered as much as the product – or to put it another way, the product is not just the text, but also a group of change-makers who trust each other and will work together to make sure international development remains high on the agenda on both sides of the Atlantic.