Ain’t no 3rd World No More

If nothing else, we can hope that the ongoing shitshow in Washington will serve as a reminder that the trope of corruption-ridden Third World autocracies is false. And if we take that lesson to heart, we need to consider what that does to the assumptions ruling much of development theory—and indeed in defining what development even is.

Back in 2015, the decision of Speaker and acting head of state Marcellino Pipite to pardon himself and 13 other partners in crime was treated by the international press with supercilious glee. It will be interesting to see whether the USA will be as successful at countering such a threat to their democracy as we were then.

More than a few people in the Pacific and elsewhere have challenged developed countries’ right to define good governance, and to prescribe how it can be achieved in young democracies.

A number of them are quick to criticise because they don’t want to be held accountable. But an equal or greater number sincerely question the moral right of more powerful countries to dictate norms.

China was arguably the first wealthy country with a presence in the Pacific to pull away from this behaviour. Their transactional approach to bilateral relations was welcomed by some politicians—mostly those who were tired of being lectured to. They appreciated the deference shown to them. They appreciated being treated as equals.

Prime Minister Charlot Salwai attended an international conference on ‘Global Economic Governance Innovation’ on his first visit to Beijing. On each of several visits, he was treated to the same pomp and circumstance accorded to any other head of government.

Decisions concerning development priorities and use of Chinese grant funds were not negotiated. The amounts and timing were, but not how they were used.

I once pressed the Chinese Ambassador for an explanation of why China agreed to gift our much-maligned conference centre to the nation. He insisted it was entirely the government’s choice.

“I asked them, ‘Are you sure?’” he said. “They said yes.”

He shrugged and smiled helplessly. Co-owning the bad ones is the price of showing respect for the government’s decisions.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its pride of place in the Pacific development landscape, Australia had never invited a Vanuatu prime minister to visit. Not at least until increasingly frantic representations from the local high commission were finally heeded. Malcolm Turnbull finally welcomed Mr Salwai to Australia in mid-2018.

Parochialism has always underpinned assumptions about development. From Bob Geldof’s well-intentioned but snide suggestion that wealthy nations should let starving Africans know it’s Christmas to the parachute aid mechanisms developed by international NGOs, and so accurately lampooned by the anonymous author of the Hand Relief International blog. I expect it will survive us.

There’s been more than a little holier-than-thouness among the chorus of adherents to a Rules Based Order that seems quick to impose expectations on others that are not being met at home.

But last week’s events have highlighted the fact that democracy is a process, not a product. It can’t easily be packaged for export, although it appears to be susceptible to purchase.

If only one thing that emerges from this horrorshow, let’s pray for a collective realisation that democracy:

  1. Costs a lot;

  2. never stops costing a lot;

  3. takes constant effort;

  4. cannot be taken for granted; and

  5. is vastly better than the alternatives.

There are signs that some people, at least, are beginning to see the world differently, and are realising that Us is just Them viewed from a different angle. On Friday, dozens of US State Department officials called for a communiqué to:

“explicitly denounce President Trump’s role in this violent attack on the US Government. Just as we routinely denounce foreign leaders who use violence and intimidation to interfere in peaceful democratic processes and override the will of their voters, the Department’s public statements about this episode should also mention President Trump by name. It is critical that we communicate to the world that in our system, no one — not even the president, is above the law or immune to public criticism.”

That’s a heartening sign, but it’s clearly a minority view. Already, the forces that drove the American insurrection are gathering themselves for a second putsch—er, push.

So even if there is a transformation in the way we approach development and democracy building, I doubt that will happen quickly. And even if it happens soon, it’s likely to be focused much closer to home.

I fear the result of this will not be an embrace of global values, but a collapse into inward-focused nation-building.

On the one hand, that could buy Pacific nations some intellectual space to define themselves and their own particular values.

On the other hand, it could provide cover for any number of selfish acts committed under the banner of nationalism.