RHODES, Greece — At the Rhodes Forum, disagreement is the goal. The annual dialogue on the Greek island pulls together several hundred business leaders, academics, and the occasional head of state to debate key geopolitical issues that range from whether new institutions are needed to shape the global order, to the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.
The idea is that through a clash of viewpoints pitting a Western perspective against that of other global powers — Russia, China, and middle-income countries — some consensus might be reached.
There was little disagreement to be had, though, on the issue of sustainable development for the global south — a central topic at this year's forum, which ended Saturday. Participants charted a vision of development fueled by new infrastructure and funded not by World Bank or International Monetary Fund loans, but by less restrictive sources of financing, such as China's Belt and Road Initiative.
There was also a call for lower-income countries to reduce their dependence on the trade of unrefined natural resources to higher-income countries in favor of internal industrialization, leveraging economic gains to self-finance infrastructure and jump-start an entrepreneurial sector.
Meanwhile, the role of traditional development assistance went almost unmentioned throughout the two-day event.
This year's forum headlined “Global (Dis)Order,” was the 17th iteration of the event organized by the Berlin-based think tank Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. The organization, which has offices in Vienna, Moscow and, most recently, New Delhi, describes itself as “an independent platform for dialogue that brings together diverse perspectives from the developed and the developing worlds.”
It remains tight-lipped about its funding. The fact that its co-founders include Vladimir Yakunin — a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the former head of the state-owned Russian Railways — has raised some questions about how closely it is aligned with the Kremlin. In 2018, DOC received more than €5 million ($5.56 million) in donations, according to its annual report, though it does not list the donors. It also draws funds from a Switzerland-based endowment established in 2013, but does not disclose the source of the endowment funding.
When DOC shifted its headquarters from Vienna to Berlin in 2016, the German media was quick to ask whether it would operate as a mouthpiece for Russian propaganda. Its representatives insist they value inclusion. At this year's forum there was an emphasis on balancing worldviews with a mix of representatives from Europe, Asia and, especially, the BRICS countries — the emerging powers of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Some of the bigger-name speakers included former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, former President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, and Russia’s former Deputy Economics Minister Andrey Klepach. The presence of Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou did not obscure a broader lack of voices from low-income countries, and an almost total absence of civil society representatives, neither of which stopped the forum from focusing specifically on development in Africa.
Guiding that discussion, and the broader conversation around sustainable development in the global south, was an early consensus that economic growth and democratization are the overarching goals.
Gabriela Ramos, chief of staff at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, was one of the few voices to caution about the potential ramifications of a singular pursuit of economic growth within the development agenda, pointing to rising inequality and greater social fragmentation. Her call to identify models that “deliver for all people” and that respect planetary boundaries went largely undiscussed.
The forum's other guiding pillar — democratization, and the protection it affords to minorities and dissenters — proved more open for debate on the stage.
“The notion of developmental states usually is associated with authoritarian regimes,” Vladimir Popov, DOC's research director in economics and political sciences, told Devex. “You should look at it as not good or bad, it's just a stage of development.” He pointed to periods of industrialization in Western countries that happened even as they denied suffrage to large swathes of their citizens. “I think the most successful cases are the cases where you do it gradually.”
Issoufou channeled the consensus around economic growth during a Q&A session on the first day of the forum. “African leaders have specific agendas in the development space,” he said. “These include plans for infrastructure and for industrial development.”
He argued that the continent would be in a better position to self-finance those projects if it upended current trade dynamics and escaped the legacy of being a “supplier of raw materials and consumer of finished products that were simply produced elsewhere.” He underscored the importance of the emerging free trade agreement in Africa as critical to providing alternative markets.
Peter Eigen, who directed the World Bank office in Nairobi and later founded Transparency International, said the promise of a new economic era for Africa had been made before and that the overhaul participants sketched out cannot possibly be paid for entirely with domestic funds.
“We need a world that responds to this and that is willing to make investments and contributions in Africa,” he said.
But it was clear that other speakers were not looking to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund or traditional donors for that. Instead, China's Belt and Road Initiative was regularly raised as a future model of funding.
“The main significance [of Belt and Road] is not investment or money, the main significance is access to Chinese-led globalization; Chinese value chains,” Bruno Maçães, the former Portuguese minister of European affairs, told Devex. “It has become difficult for many countries, many unstable countries, to join Western-led value chains.”
Meanwhile, the role that traditional development assistance might play in the global south went almost unmentioned — even by Issoufou, who acknowledged that he had traveled to Rhodes from France, where he had been supporting the drive to replenish the Global Fund. When aid did come up, it was to note that donor countries are increasingly using official development assistance to ease the entrance of their own corporations into emerging markets.
“There’s no example that a country became rich on aid and there’s no evidence that a country became rich even on foreign capital,” Popov said. “And I’m not saying there’s no role for money from the World Bank or the IMF, but for growth, you need to do something yourself.”