DP57 Public enemies: the role of global public goods in aid policy narratives

Development Policy Centre Discussion Paper No. 57

By Robin Davies

March 2017

Ushered into the international development arena around the turn of this century by the German economist Inge Kaul, the concept of a global public good was an abstruse and surprising hit. Variations on it have found their way into most donor countries’ aid policy narratives. Kaul herself has long argued that international development assistance should not be used for the production of global public goods. Nevertheless, donor agencies have thoroughly appropriated the concept. In this paper, I do two things. First, I argue that the concept of a global public good has generally been used in an unduly restricted and self-serving way in aid policy narratives, as a euphemism for ‘solutions to transboundary problems of particular concern to donor countries’. I further argue that it might be deployed to greater effect were it linked more specifically to concrete, realistic global public policy commitments aimed at eliminating certain of the world’s ‘bads’—by, in effect, declaring them public enemies. I stress that global public policy commitments need not always yield net benefits for all. Some, morally based, might benefit only defined groups, as in the case of a global refugee resettlement regime. All such commitments, however, have in common a ‘whatever it takes’ character and credible means of implementation. Second, I here release, in an annex, the full transcript of an extended interview about the financing of global public goods that I conducted with Kaul in May 2015. This complements the material in the body of the paper because, while my own views about aid and global public goods do not completely accord with Kaul’s, particularly in relation to the use of aid to support the production of such goods, they were formed in part through reflection over a period of time on our 2015 discussion.

Davies, R. 2017, ‘Public enemies: the role of global public goods in aid policy narratives’, Discussion Paper No. 57, Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, Canberra.

Karen Downing

Karen Downing is Research Communications Coordinator at the Development Policy Centre.