The Third International Conference on Financing for Development is a rather dry title for an event with profound global significance. During the course of this week the international community meets to set the seal on the Addis Ababa Action Plan, which describes a popular vision for the things that should be included on the development docket. But how will we pay to ensure that “no one is left behind”?
I am here with my colleagues Diana and Reineira scanning the agendas and attending sessions that will improve our understanding of some of the technical dimensions of development finance, but also to gain additional insights into the preoccupations of civil society organisations, many of which have been working on this issue for years. Their concerns are also for the future of Sustainable Development Goals, which will be unveiled in New York in September. They remember the lost years at the start of the millennium when the MDG agenda effectively stalled because of a lack of detail on how it would be funded.
Addis is buzzing. Lanyarded delegates make their way between the more than 200 side events that are taking place alongside the official conference and thousands of civil society organisations are here to learn, share and influence. They have come in such numbers that the UN system has struggled to accommodate them effectively, showing that once again multi-lateral processes have yet to catch up with the demand from civil society not only to be heard but to be involved.
The tone of the official discussions this year has changed since the early days of the Monterrey Consensus. In 2002 there was at least some recognition that the developed world had some obligations to the majority world so that commonly held development aspirations could be achieved. Here the talk is of “mobilising domestic resources.” I’ve heard the phrase “getting each country to stand on its own feet” more than once this week and while one can’t argue with the sentiment, the question of how we work together as a global community to address universal concerns remains unanswered.
Mobilising domestic resources I now understand is code for financing development through domestic taxation. It’s an issue that divides the conference. Civil society networks are looking beyond national boundaries and are pressing for a global body that would close loopholes and ensure that tax is paid by corporations in the countries where wealth is generated. On the other side there are many governments (which will after all sign off on the Addis Action Plan) that see the setting up of tax havens as the only way of attracting foreign direct investment.
Outside the formal sessions civil society organisations offer many other counterpoints to the official conference. The rise and rise of the private sector panacea is checked only briefly by civil society organisations raising questions about accountability, scale and sustainability. They are also working to make sure that generic headline issues such as gender equality and climate finance are nuanced with regional or sectoral specificities. But don’t think for a moment that those side events are the sole preserve of civil society. The World Bank, OECD, UN agencies, donor governments and private philanthropy are also out to win hearts and minds as well. Who could resist the World Bank’s side event “Building Bankability – How Private Public Partnerships can help leverage billions to trillions.”
I leave Addis with my admiration for civil society organisations (at least those dedicated to advocating for social justice when they are consistently excluded from decision making moments) renewed. The fact that they were included throughout the process leading up to Addis – only to be asked for additional accreditation at the last minute to allow them into certain official sessions can only have heightened their frustrations with global governance institutions. In a similar vein you can also begin to see the potential for common cause between small states that feel similarly alienated and civil society. This is an area of rich potential for the Commonwealth Foundation – acknowledging the Commonwealth’s small states advantage with 31 of our 53 member states. Enabling constructive engagement between state and non-state in that context takes on an emerging strategic significance.
To close I offer a postscript. I wonder whether domestic tax regimes really will be able to finance development in the global South, when in some parts of the North tax avoidance has become something of a civic duty. This morning outside our hotel in the Muslim quarter, men carried huge weights of fruit and vegetables from the market to vans and cars for distribution across the country. Suddenly one of them, slightly built and carrying at least twice his own weight in potatoes in a basket balanced on his head buckled and fell. The potatoes rolled down the hill as passers-by stopped to look on. The spell was broken when one person started to pick up the potatoes and re-fill the basket. Another looked after the fallen man. Another volunteered to finish the journey for him with the heavy load. The crowd dispersed and my mind went back to the conference themes. I struggled to see how the people I had just seen would fit in to a new domestic tax regime and wondered what impact it would have on the informal economy that is their livelihood.