Madrid view: The politics of solidarity

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Spanish development aid is to be cut by 1.580 billion euros, which is a 70-percent reduction. This is in sharp contrast with the cutbacks in other areas of state expenditure, which average 17 percent. International cooperation, which represented 0.4 percent of GDP, will now fall to 0.26 percent, levels last seen in 2002. Needless to say, the development community has been horrified by this move, which will set back our compliance with the UN objective of devoting 0.7 percent of GDP to development by a decade.

The government is cutting back cooperation expenditure for the simple reason that it can. In a democracy, votes are the bottom line. Politics is, after all, a marketplace where the politicians seek to maximize their profits, or minimize the adverse costs of their decisions. In the case of aid, apart from a small minority of professionals, who are lifers in the development game, the vast majority of material beneficiaries reside outside our borders. They are not part of the body politic, nor do they vote in elections. So cutbacks hit this budget heading hard.

In theory, advanced democratic societies ought to be capable of creating and sustaining cross-border mechanisms of solidarity. In practice, however, we know how hard it is for solidarity to transcend national identities. Whether it is a question of immigration, of state aid to development, or of bailout funds for foundering countries such as Greece, our societies — in theory open, but in practice more closed than we think — grate and resist. These cutbacks show, then, something that many suspected but did not care to put in so many words: a decade of huge investments in cooperation and development has not really consolidated in our society the idea that solidarity should be practiced not only between generations, social classes, territories and individuals, but also beyond our frontiers. Though the people of Spain have been prime beneficiaries of European solidarity for more than two decades, the sediment left by this developmental assistance does not seem very substantial. Can we then say requiescat in pace for the idea of an extended giving that would transcend our own body politic? That is a question to keep in mind concerning the future of the global presence of Spain and its position in Europe.

Yet it is not only in the ambit of principles, but also in that of interests, that sustainability problems crop up in our development cooperation. Eight years of Socialist government gave a great push to this policy, equipping it with important resources. But it now appears that these years have failed to make it an inter-party policy of state, to be respected by the then-principal opposition party, now governing. Hence Spain’s cooperation and development policy seems to be another victim of the party ideologization that is coming to prevail. While in neighboring countries development policy enjoys an inter-party consensus, in both means and ends, the Popular Party has seen in this policy too many ideological elements that grate on its vision of the world, and its reading of national interests.

Owing to the conjunction of the crisis with a lack of planning previous to their arrival in power, instead of maintaining the program, as the Cameron government has done in the UK, here the PP has opted to set the needle practically back to zero and start again. But without a pact of state, an intense dialogue with the opposition and the construction of widespread social support for the policy, this beginning can only be the prelude to a lurch in the other direction when the party in power changes again. A development and cooperation program can be sustainable only when it is credible to all the social sectors involved. Anything else can only be a step backward that will harm our international image, and a sheer waste of time.

This article first appeared in El Pais. Follow José-Ignacio Torreblanca on Twitter @jitorreblanca

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