The crisis as an opportunity for structural change in development cooperation

The crisis as an opportunity for structural change in development cooperation

Which role should international development cooperation play in the current crisis and in the near future? For decades, it has not been able to overcome the growing inequality between the Global North and Global South. From a post-colonial perspective, we urgently need comprehensive reforms. This is what fellows of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, FES) discussed about during a meeting in Kassel, Germany, which translated into a collaborative writing project.


Title page of the thesis paper

Global social inequalities:
A postcolonial perspective

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fatal consequences of global social inequalities have become increasingly visible. While in Europe people were able to travel again and children could return to school, the population in most countries of the Global South continues to suffer acutely from curfews and the corresponding economic and social consequences. Very few health systems have the capacity to treat Covid-19 patients in large numbers. The social security systems are simply inadequate to protect people from poverty. Moreover, many countries are already struggling with crises and conflicts.1 It is a global and social question of who is affected to which extent and how the pandemic can be managed. Therefore, common solutions and a global way of thinking are more necessary than ever. Once again, the question arises which role development cooperation (DC) can play in overcoming these global inequalities.

Currently, international organizations have to adapt their projects to the new challenges and define new long-term goals. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) emphasizes in its statement on the Coronavirus Immediate Assistance Programme that the virus does not halt at any borders and that the pandemic can only be defeated on a worldwide level.2 The reform concept “BMZ 2030”3,  presented in April 2020, also shows that the previous approaches of DC need to be reconsidered. How can their implementation lead to a fairer and more sustainable international cooperation? The current crisis can and must be seen as an opportunity to rethink obsolete concepts.

Despite almost 70 years of German and international DC, global social inequality has hardly changed. Representatives of postcolonial approaches and post-development theories have pointed out for decades that European supremacy in defining and implementing development projects is based on a colonial continuity.4 Thus, it reproduces inequalities instead of breaking with them. So far, these ideas have found little attention within the institutions of DC, possibly because they seem too abstract or because they give few practical suggestions.

Against this background, we, members of the Working Group for Global Development and Postcolonial Issues of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Academic Grants Programme, had a lively discussion during a work meeting in Kassel in March 2019. The meeting eventually resulted in a discussion paper in which we highlight theoretical critical aspects with regard to the structures of the institutions and the procedures of everyday project work in international DC. Based on our consideration of post-colonial and post-development theories, we developed 17 suggestions  in order to inspire a discussion on how to reform DC: Postkolonialismus & Post-Development: Praktische Perspektiven für die Entwicklungszusammenarbeit (German) and Postcolonialism & Post-Development: Practical Perspectives for Development Cooperation (English). In the following, we present four of our suggestions that have become even more urgent in view of the pandemic.

We build our reflections on the assumption that development cooperation (DC) aims to support societies in achieving economic and social improvements and in eliminating social inequalities.5 We criticise that most efforts of DC follow a unilinear idea of ‘development’ that originates from Western and imperial thought processes. A central critique of DC is the lack of a comprehensive reappraisal and reform of colonial ways of thinking and acting. Post-development theories see this dominance in the development discourse as a central obstacle to the reduction of inequalities.6 This is the case because the institutions of DC are characterised by an understanding of development that envisages a social rationalisation according to Western and capitalist models for all regions of the world.7 
Postcolonial theories underline the historical influence of colonial systems and particularly point out that a continuity of colonial political-economic power structures causes a complex marginalisation of the Global South. The Global North is still the principal beneficiary of global economic structures that have grown with the expansion of liberal capitalism and European imperialism.8
Practical perspectives for development cooperation
The discussion paper initially provides a brief theoretical overview of postcolonial and post-development theories. The paper focuses on 17 derived practical suggestions for international DC, which are divided into the following thematic blocks:
A. Recognising and jointly addressing the historical responsibility of the Global North
B. Towards justice in global economic relations
C. Promoting a more humane and sustainable understanding of the economy
D. More self-determination and say for addressees of development cooperation interventions
E. More transparency and accountability towards societies in the Global South and North 
F. Promoting reciprocal knowledge exchange and diversity of knowledge

Towards justice in global economic relations

Companies often accept that basic human and employee rights are not respected in their global supply chains. Therefore, they should be obliged by national legislation to assume more responsibility for just production conditions. This should be implemented through binding and verifiable standards along the supply chain, e.g. through a supply chain act. The partial breakdown of global supply chains in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic underlines the need for such business accountability. In the textile sector, for example, many companies suspended contracts with suppliers with reference to a “force majeure” contract clause.9 While employees in Europe’s shops have been put on short-time work and thus benefit at least from basic social security, millions of workers in factories in the producing countries have lost jobs that are precarious in the first place. Gerd Müller, the German Development Minister, has therefore promised 14.5 million euros in support to countries particularly affected (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Madagascar).10 However, the short-term aid should be accompanied by legal provisions in order to regulate business practices, as suggestion 2 of our paper underlines. (Suggestion 2, p.13: Demanding responsibility from companies operating at the international level)

Promoting a more humane and sustainable understanding of the economy

In the course of the global lockdown in spring 2020, discussions began on whether the reduction of economic activity due to the pandemic could save the climate. On average, carbon dioxide emissions worldwide had fallen by 17 percent by the beginning of April.11 Initially, climate researchers assumed that this could have long-term effects on the CO2 concentration in the global atmosphere, but more recent studies have rejected this assumption.12 Nevertheless, the lockdown has shown that it is possible to achieve noticeable improvements in the concentration of emissions simply by reducing resource-intensive economic activity. Furthermore, proven alternatives to the current development model gained momentum, such as the choice of environmentally friendly means of transport, rethinking non-essential travel and reducing material consumption. The model of large-scale industrial production and environmental exploitation at a global scale essentially originates from a history of European colonialism. This model has revealed its weaknesses especially during the current crisis, even to the predominantly privileged population in the industrialised countries. Decision-makers in the Global North need to set the course for a sustainable economy. This also applies to international cooperation where alternative models to boost the economy should gain more ground. In particular, we should rethink whether materialistic growth without measuring social factors can be equated with prosperity. Therefore, we advocate that alternative, sustainable economic models should be promoted more in German and European DC. ecision-makers in politics, economics and research should pay considerably more attention to measures of prosperity beyond the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNI (Gross National Income). (Suggestion 5, p.17: Promoting sustainable economic forms & suggestion 6, p.18: Diversifying the measuring of wealth)

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Gross National Income (GNI) are indicators of a country’s economic performance. GDP measures the value of all goods and services produced withing a country by nationals and non-nationals, based on their prices. By contrast, GNI measures the sum of the income of all nationals, whether generated domestically or abroad. These measures are criticised because they do not include many activities that contribute to the well-being of a society, such as unpaid domestic work. Instead, it records e.g. cleaning-up after oil disasters, even though this only compensates for environmental destruction.13,14

More self-determination and say for addressees of development cooperation interventions

Due to the collapse of export revenues since the beginning of the pandemic, many of the poorest countries face difficulties repaying the loans granted to them by International Development Assistance (IDA). For this reason, the G20, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and private creditors have approved a one-year debt moratorium (see further below) for 77 countries. For the 47 poorest countries, these institutions work on a possible debt relief.15 Considering Europe’s colonial past, debt reliefs are anyway overdue. In contrast to the financial crisis in 2008, the IMF provided emergency aid more quickly and under less rigid conditions this time. The recipient countries are supposed to spend the financial aid on healthcare in particular. It is cynical that the current deficits in many countries’ health sectors are largely the result of the IMF’s earlier credit conditions. This is because public-sector loans were tied to cuts in the public sector that were implemented as part of structural adjustment programmes in the 1970s and more recently in the financial crisis.16 This example shows how disastrous the consequences of centralised and hierarchical decisions by international organisations can be. At the very least, as part of the Coronavirus Immediate Assistance Programme, the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development has set itself the goal to restructure international organisations and measures.17 In order to seize the opportunity for a profound restructuring, the perspectives of governments and civil society on the ground should be taken into account throughout the process and on a level playing field. For this purpose, decision-making and problem-solving should be decentralised. In general, partners in development cooperation need to have a greater say in defining goals and implementing measures. (Suggestion 1, p.12: Coming to terms with colonialism in society and politics & suggestion 7, p.19: Striving for decentralised solutions and decision-making)

(Debt) moratorium

(Debt) moratorium

A debt moratorium, also known as standstill agreement, is the temporary postponement of the repayment of a guaranteed loan agreed between creditor and debtor, which is often used at state level.

(Debt) moratorium

A debt moratorium, also known as standstill agreement, is the temporary postponement of the repayment of a guaranteed loan agreed between creditor and debtor, which is often used at state level.

Promoting reciprocal knowledge exchange and diversity of knowledge

Governments and international organisations should work together to respond to the new challenges posed by the pandemic. Different experiences and both negative and positive examples around the world should be analysed in order to learn from each other. Although most countries of the Global South suffer economically and have poorly developed health systems, good practice examples worldwide can teach important lessons. Cuba, for example, has had experience in preventive and alternative medicine for years, as it is more cost-effective by avoiding advanced stages of disease and expensive treatments. The population’s awareness of medicine and acceptance of corona measures is high and has helped to contain the spread of the virus.18 Furthermore, the country is experienced in the development and production of vaccines and could therefore play an important role in the provision of a vaccine for Covid-19.19 The months of the lockdown have also shown the importance of considering different ways of living and dimensions of a good life, such as psychological, health, social and economic well-being. In our discussion paper, we advocate that partners from the Global South and the North should exchange knowledge in a reciprocal and just manner. By mutually exchanging ideas, scientists and practitioners can also address problems in the Global North and thus work better on common challenges.
(Suggestion 14, p.28: Promoting a reciprocal exchange of knowledge)
The arguments presented here are just a few examples of how the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed serious weaknesses in global economic governance and international cooperation. The current situation confirms the relevance of our suggestions to a large extent, of which we discussed four in the light of the pandemic and its impact in this blogpost.

This blog entry is based on the following paper:

Tim Kornprobst, Tanja Matheis, Adrian Schlegel, Florian Vitello, Julia Fritzsche, Myriell Fußer, Clemens Starke, Tatjana Zemeitat, Denise Klüber (2020). Postcolonialism & Post-Development. Practical Perspectives for Development Cooperation. FES Scholarly Working Group on Global Development and Postcolonial Issues.

Our paper was also recommended as a feature External link by the collective Convivial Thinking.
We also discuss the reform concept “BMZ 2030” in our EADI blog post: The 2030 turn in German Development Policy – An Opportunity to Fundamentally Challenge Global Inequalities? External link

We do not see our suggestions as fixed guidelines, but we hope that they will stimulate further productive discussions towards an emancipatory international cooperation. We are grateful for any feedback, spreading the paper or interest in further cooperation for events. Please contact us: 


Myriell Fußer and Tanja Matheis for the Working Group for Global Development and Postcolonial Issues of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Scholarship Programme


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