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Some female student electricians enthusiastically demonstrate their skills at a technical school in Kasese, Uganda (© Enabel/Sam Deckers).
The great challenges we face – climate, migration, security, health, etc. – we can only meet them if we cooperate with other countries. Development cooperation is therefore an investment in well-being for us all. Find out below why international solidarity is so important, necessary and useful.
Most of us have always known development cooperation during our lives. Indeed, development aid – later called development cooperation – originated primarily in the aftermath of decolonisation in the 1960s. Aim: To help the 'developing countries' that gained independence – also called the South or poorer countries – with knowledge and resources to develop.
And this is a laborious and complicated process. After all, lifting people and countries out of poverty is not easy. Moreover, there are many global interests at play that are sometimes obstructive. Fortunately, we have learned many lessons in the meantime and we continue to do so today. We are constantly adjusting our approach with new insights.
Today, we prefer to speak of international solidarity. It is in everyone's interest that we build a more equal world where everyone can live a dignified life in complete safety. No one should be left behind!
Yet many people do criticise the money we invest in poorer countries. They say we would be better off using those pennies here at home, where there is also a great deal of need. Moreover, it is said that too much would disappear into the deep pockets of greedy politicians and intermediaries.
However, we believe that international solidarity is in fact extremely important, today even more than ever. After all, we are facing more and more challenges that, as a small country – and even as a European Union – we cannot face alone. Consider the climate, migration and security, to name a few.
The unequal world as we know it today is unavoidably giving give rise to conflict and instability. Therefore, the more equal world we seek through international solidarity provides greater security and stability. This, then, also greatly increases our own well-being. In other words: international solidarity is simply crucial, including for our own self-interest.
Below, we offer some concrete reasons as to why international solidarity is needed more than ever. And why it works, including for our own benefit.
1. Without international solidarity, we can never solve today's big problems
Our world is facing many challenges that transcend the boundaries of a country, or even a group of countries. The most obvious example is the climate crisis. Only global agreements can make a real difference here.
But those only work if all the countries can also implement the actions agreed upon. If people only have wood as an energy source, the countries involved cannot guarantee that no more forests will be cut down. So we need to assist the population with other energy sources or more economical cooking fires, with jobs, with knowledge and resources to produce enough food, etc.
Our health also depends upon what is going on outside our territory. Pathogens such as viruses and bacteria do not respect national borders. Just consider the coronavirus pandemic that plagued us for a few years.
If people on the other side of the world contract diseases because – purely for survival – they had too close contact with wild animals, that will also affect us. If inadequate healthcare elsewhere allows pathogens to circulate unrestricted, it may also lead to more disease here. This is why we need to assist them, so that these diseases cannot spread.
2. A more equal world is a more harmonious and secure world
No-one wants to live in fear of potential violence every day. We are so used to being safe on the streets, to meeting people, to shopping, to travelling. But for many, that fear is a daily reality. Just consider the horrific war currently raging in Ukraine and eastern Congo.
A basic requirement for peace and security is equality or equal opportunities. When people have to struggle every day to get enough food while others are very well off, it can cause unrest. When people, populations or countries feel disadvantaged and humiliated, this can give rise to resentment and even violent acts.
International solidarity seeks to alleviate inequality, for example by installing systems for social security. It assumes that every human being is equally worthy and entitled to a dignified existence.
3. In a more equal world, people need not flee
Every day, the issue of refugees is in the news. Indeed, we cannot accommodate everyone. But why do people flee? No one leaves their native land, family and friends without a serious reason. They are fleeing injustice, discrimination and violence, or they see no future in their country. And they hope to find that with us.
If people do see a future – an income to support their families, fulfilment, security – they will see no reason to flee. By creating a framework in which they can earn a living, by standing up for basic human rights, international solidarity helps make people feel good in their countries.
Then migration is no longer a painful necessity, but a choice. Just as many Belgians move abroad, for the sake of a sunnier climate or a fascinating culture. As an aside, migration can also advance our society, for example by filling bottleneck occupations. The Belgian Development Cooperation is already making efforts to turn migration into a positive story.
Irrigation experts Sergio and Arlindo install solar-powered irrigation sprinklers in Mozambique (© Enabel/Isabel Corthier).
4. International solidarity forges ties
By assisting people and countries, we forge ties. For example, thousands of students from poorer countries have studied with us, with Belgian support. They ended up in an international group where they got to know other nationalities – including, of course, Belgians. Some close friendships grew. Without exception, their stay in Belgium was both a pleasant time and an eye-opener. They invariably look back on it with some wistfulness.
This is only one example of how solidarity and cooperation forge ties. And those ties give us relationships that provide access to a country, opportunities for our businesses, allies, etc. We can find solutions together by putting our strengths together. Moreover, those ties are crucial in a world in which not all countries have good intentions or in which world powers are encroaching.
5. International solidarity is a human rights issue
In 1948, the international community formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In essence, this statement reflects the fundamental needs of every human being everywhere. Do we not all wish to live in freedom, to be recognised as a person, with the opportunity to develop, to marry, to acquire income and property, to live a dignified life, to adhere to a faith and so on? Without losing sight of duties. Fundamentally, we are far more alike than we would think at first glance. There is actually more that binds us than separates us.
Unfortunately, there are still massive numbers of people who cannot live with their rights intact. By working globally for sustainable human development, international solidarity contributes to the achievement of fundamental human rights.
6. International solidarity focuses upon self-reliance
International solidarity is by no means about putting people or countries – the so-called beneficiaries – on a lifelong drip. That would never lead to a satisfying existence. People want to be able to make independent decisions about their lives. This, too, is a universal fact.
What solidarity does aim to do is to make people and countries self-reliant. This means that they can take care of their own existence. Beneficiaries becoming dependent on the 'help' is precisely what should be avoided. Some great ideas are often buzzing among the local population, and especially young people, but they lack some knowledge and/or resources. International solidarity then provides that push that does allow them to produce those sustainable, cheap sanitary towels or develop an application that helps farmers combat climate disruption.
Self-reliance also means that countries can earn their own income and no longer have to beg for aid. This is why the Belgian Development Cooperation assists countries in collecting taxes themselves, attracting foreign investment and so on.
So development cooperation – in the sense of allocating money – is a finite story! The more effectively we assist the countries, the sooner they can stand on their own two feet and the sooner we can phase out pure 'aid'.
International solidarity strives to make beneficiary countries strong partners with whom we can cooperate on completely equal terms. In fact, only then can we really speak of cooperation. Each country has its strengths, knowledge and resources and we then put them together. We all learn from each other and we all need each other.
7. International solidarity supports people in need, not governments or intermediaries
Perhaps you believe it is all hopeless because the money disappears into the pockets of intermediaries anyway and never reaches the people who need it. That will certainly have happened in the past, but in the meantime we have learned more.
For example, the Belgian development agency Enabel has a fully-fledged and independent integrity agency to combat fraud and abuse of power. The cooperation programmes that Belgium concludes with its partner countries include a strict anti-corruption clause. In the event of any irregularities, Belgium may suspend government-to-government cooperation indefinitely.
Belgium also supports local civil society so that it can hold its own government accountable. Our non-governmental actors – NGOs, universities, etc. – work directly with civil society anyway. They too make every effort to be transparent. See, for example, the website ngo-openbook.be. All the details on Belgian Development Cooperation can be found at openaid.be
Belgium also supports specific projects on corruption. In addition, within the framework of the UN, it is also committed to the battle against corruption.
Fraud and corruption cannot always be avoided. But this is no reason to stop or reduce our development cooperation. Effective methods to curb corruption do exist and Belgium applies them as scrupulously as possible.
8. International solidarity works!
First, let us distinguish between humanitarian aid and development cooperation. Humanitarian aid provides urgent assistance in the event of conflicts and natural disasters. It aims to alleviate the suffering of the affected population and contribute towards the restoration of the original situation. People receive food packages, emergency housing, starter kits to get back into farming, etc. In short, it is abundantly clear that humanitarian aid works.
In development cooperation, things are a little more difficult. It strives to improve living conditions and works more in the long term. It tries to embed some fundamental improvements.
But among all the other factors, how do you measure exactly what the impact of development cooperation was? Yet research shows that development cooperation is indeed followed by economic growth, with job creation and poverty reduction.
Either way, there are some very concrete results, such as many more children – and girls – going to school, a decrease in infant mortality, more people enjoying health care, people able to start businesses and therefore earn a living, far less extreme poverty and so on.
A good example is South Korea. That country received $13 billion in development aid between 1945 and 1999, which helped it grow into the first 'Asian tiger'. This is precisely why the Koreans were strongly motivated to give something back themselves. Today, development cooperation and international solidarity are high on South Korea's agenda.
In addition to financial support – mainly through loans – the country is strongly committed to political support, building expertise, sharing knowledge, fiscal independence and green economic development. Development should be led by developing countries themselves and focused on their own specific needs, South Korea believes. After all, it had itself found that this approach helped the most.
Development cooperation is a complex process, but it really can make a difference. It comes down to being open to criticism and continuing to learn from our mistakes. And above all, listening carefully to the experiences of our partners and learning from one another.
9. International solidarity makes money
Several studies have shown that the money we invest in development cooperation also pays off. For example, every euro Germany spent on aid between 1978 and 2011 led to an average of 0.83 euros in increased exports. Those higher exports, in turn, created some 216,000 new jobs.
In the United Kingdom (UK), every dollar of direct bilateral development funding resulted in $0.22 in increased exports. In 2014 alone, the $5.9 billion the UK spent on direct bilateral aid created an additional $1.3 billion in exports and 12,000 new jobs. Australia did even better. There, each dollar of aid led to increased exports to the receiving country of $7.1.
This is not to mention the expenses avoided. For example, every dollar invested in peacebuilding is said to save $16 by preventing costly future conflicts. Another study found that investing in conflict prevention has the potential to save $33 billion annually in a neutral scenario, and still $5 billion in the most pessimistic scenario. The same goes for investments in combatting climate disruption.
Development cooperation, of course, also brings benefits to the beneficiary country itself. For example, every dollar invested in early childhood is said to eventually yield $6-17. The impact is especially striking among girls.
10. International solidarity is not charity
Nothing wrong with charity – helping others – but often, for the most part subtly and unconsciously, helping a poor and needy person is accompanied by a certain condescension. It creates a relationship of giver and receiver, of superior and inferior. And this is precisely what international solidarity does not aim for.
International solidarity seeks to help others on an equal footing. We are all equal and we all have our talents – only some have had fewer opportunities. Solidarity aims to respond to those missed opportunities, so that everyone can take control of their lives.
No-one is better than anyone else – we all have our shortcomings, we can all learn from one another. The bottom line is that we all benefit, including ourselves.
A world without international solidarity, in which each country locks itself within its own borders, would be an extremely bleak world. A fragmented world without any cohesion, in which problems would assume gigantic proportions. Every person, every country has the right to develop itself, but not at the expense of others. That would only return like a boomerang and undermine our own existence.
This is why international solidarity is committed to an open mind, to the recognition of others, to empathy. And that returns in the form of safety, security, meaning, well-being, economic prosperity and so on. Reasons abound for continuing to nurture international solidarity.