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06 Aug 2015

Drifting Basis for International Norms in the 3rd Financing for Development Conference By Zhang Chun

By Zhang Chun, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

moneyThe 3rd Financing for Development (FfD) conference has just concluded (July 16th 2015) and agreed an action plan. While there is much criticism on the hallmark failure of the conference to agree on the creation of a global tax body, there were under-reported, yet historic, changes regarding international norm-building that will themselves have a significant impact on the evolution of the international system.

Since the creation of the Westphalian system nearly four centuries ago, international norms have been dominated by the Western powers or the developed world. With regard to building the post-2015 development agenda and a related mechanism of financing for development, the international community faces three challenges: upgrading the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the collective rise of the developing world, or the Rest, and the relative decline of the developed world or the West.

In sum, there is a fundamental challenge for the international community, that is, who should play a leading role in international norm-building. For the developing world, how to participate effectively in the norm-building process and play a bigger role is the key concern; for the developed world, how to maintain its traditional leading role in norm-building is of great importance.

Four historic trends in international norm-building

From the discussions in the 3rd FfD conference, we can conclude four historic trends in international norm-building, which definitely have adverse impacts on the developing world.

First, the moral standards for international norms have been raised to a higher level. Under the MDGs, the key goal was to reduce extreme poverty (measured by 1.25 USD per day); along with other goals, the MDGs were a kind of ‘negative growth’ goal to prevent the worst case scenario. When negotiating sustainable development goals (SDGs), the international community has argued for an integrated approach to economic, social, and environmental development. The SDGs pursue not only ‘negative growth’ but also ‘positive growth’ goals, with lots of ‘quality’ goals, such as reducing inequality, improving the quality of primary education, promoting sustainable consumption and production, among other things.

From a perspective of the moral basis of international norms, the MDG approach is much lower than that of the SDGs. In other words, MDGs’ moral standard is some kind of ‘baseline’ to meet the most basic needs of human beings; while the SDGs’ is a kind of ‘benchmark’ to meet certain quality requirement. In the context of developed vs. developing worlds, such a movement of moral standards of international norms hints at a development ladder: in the past, the difference between the developing and the developed worlds lay in ‘more’ or ‘less’; now, the difference is shifting to ‘more’ or ‘better’. Obviously, normative initiatives based on ‘better’ are more preferable than those based on ‘more’ (now mainly advocated by the developing world) in terms of moral correctness, which serves the continuing normative leadership of the developed world.

Second, multi-stakeholder partnerships begin to overtake governments as the legitimate source of international norms. The building of MDGs was dominated by Western governments. However, with the collective rise of the developing world, especially the emerging powers, Western leadership in international norms is challenged significantly. Fully aware of the power shift from the ‘West’ to the ‘Rest’ in inter-state affairs, the developed world has chosen to focus on another power shift, from the ‘State’ to ‘Society’, when dealing with global issues. Hence the inclusion of more and more actors into the building of SDGs and the FfD process. I call this an ‘enlarging norm-building community’, composed of governments, NGOs, civil social groups, transnational companies, academics, etc.

The developed world does have a great comparative advantage in terms of their non-state actors’ strength. However, this norm-building community does not limit itself to the developed world. Indeed, through funding innumerable NGOs and civil society groups and supporting various vulnerable groups including, for example, women, the aged, and disabled, the developed world has built such a community within the developing world as well.

For the developing world, they have done their best to catch up and to build up its capacity of norm-building in the past 15 years. However, after the setting of SDGs, the developing world will find the old rules changed once again. Governments or official actors are no longer the dominant actors in international norm-building; the developing world will very likely lag behind again due to its weakness in NGOs, civil society groups, transnational companies, or non-state actors’ capacity.

Third, the technicalization of norm-building puts the developing world at a disadvantage. Traditionally, norms have been more about morality and legitimacy; with the collective rise of the developing world, the West is losing its leverages in morality and legitimacy in leading international norm-building. The less important element, techniques, now is explored as a new comparative advantage of the developed world in terms of norm-building.

In the case of the SDGs, the report of UN Opening Working Group (OWG) is a compromise between the developed and developing worlds as the debates of inter-governmental negotiations repeatedly highlighted; such a compromise exemplifies the decline of the West’s dominant role in morality and legitimacy in the SDGs. To maintain its leading role, the West showed little willingness to accept such a compromise since the start of inter-governmental negotiation in early 2015. From the very beginning of inter-governmental negotiation, the West has been calling for assigning technical experts with all the tasks of translating goals and targets into indicators, circumventing any political guidance from governments and the UN. Given its disadvantages in technical capacity, such a trend sets a new obstacle for the developing world’s participation in norm-building.

The Fourth historic change of international norm-building that frustrates the developing world is the decoupling of cost-bearing and the leadership of norm-setting. While maintaining a comparative advantage in moral standards, legitimacy, and technical capacity in norm-building, the developed world anticipates a decline of its share in global official development aid (ODA). How is it possible to realize this strategic goal of keeping a leading role in international norm-building with reduced cost-bearing?

The developed world has developed three tactics in this regard. The first is to belittle the importance of ODA from emerging donors by emphasizing the importance of domestic resources and highlighting total official support for sustainable development (TOSSD). The second is to enhance the leverage role that ODA and other official flows can play, which is exemplified in the World Bank’s Program-for-Result (PforR) and Development Supporting Loans (DSL). And the third is to grasp the moral high ground through focusing ODA on least developed countries, especially fragile states, as exemplified by the “New Deal” Plan of G7+ group.

The above four historic trends of international norm-building are very likely to exert long-term impacts on the developing world’s participation in global governance, yet they are largely overwhelmed by the global attention on the failure of a global tax body creation. If ever, here is an opportunity for both the developed and developing worlds to appreciate such sneaky changes for better cooperation. After all, it serves no one’s interest if the world remains a North-South one in the globalized age.

Prof ZHANG Chun is Deputy Director, Center for West Asian and African Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. He specializes in African peace and security, China-Africa relations, UN Post-2015 Development Agenda, and international theory. Email:


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