Interview with John Rand, Head of Department for Global Development at the University of Copenhagen

Interview with John Rand, Head of Department for Global Development at the University of Copenhagen

Dr. John Rand is an esteemed Professor specializing in Development Economics and is currently the Head of the Department of Global Development at the University of Copenhagen. A distinguished member of the Development Economics Research Group (DERG), Dr. Rand’s research is primarily empirical, emphasizing its policy relevance within the context of developing countries. With a notable portfolio of collaborative projects, he has worked closely with national ministries and research institutions across diverse regions such as Ghana, Mozambique, Myanmar, South Africa, Tanzania, and Vietnam. Furthermore, he has established partnerships with esteemed international organizations including the UN, ILO, and the World Bank.

This is an interview ahead of the Youth 7 2024 Summit and the G7 2024 in Italy. Interview was conducted by the Secretary General of Young European Leadership, Augusto Gonzalez.

I wanted to start off by saying thank you very much for letting me interview you about this year’s G7. I’m very happy to have you here. I’d like to start by asking you the first question. So, this year’s G7 has a strong focus on development in the global South and on migration. What do you think of this year’s themes and how do you think that the G7 can make a meaningful contribution in this space? 

I think it’s timely to have it. If you also look at the World Bank report, one of the most recent ones, it was also on migration and the cost and benefits, both for the sending and receiving countries. I think a lot of knowledge was gained from that report, but it also became very apparent that there is a need to do much more. And, also considering what are the benefits of receiving migrants, for example, from Africa to Europe. So, we are talking a lot about the costs, but I think the World Bank report was very good at making us reflect upon the possible benefits that increased migration from the global south may have on EU communities, countries and within the EU, but also, maybe even more broad. But what does it actually mean to have these restrictions on movements of people, and how can this maybe be an opening up of political discussions to help us understand both the costs, because there are costs, but we have been much more focused on this than we have on the benefits. So, I think it’s very timely and a very, very good idea to discuss and maybe get a better political understanding of the potential benefits of increased people flows. 

Thank you. So, this next question does follow up a bit on the first question because, as you know, the Italian Government is the one that currently holds the Presidency of the G7 and this year they announced their new initiative for Africa, called the Mattei Plan. It is hoped to establish a framework by which it will help to develop African nations, and it will also act as a blueprint to enhance Italy’s power in the greater region. What do you think of this plan, are there any parts of it that stand out to you, and what do you think should be added to it that is not currently in place. 

I didn’t have the time to read the entire detail of the Mattei Plan, so a lot of my comments here are based on the summaries that I have read and am knowledgeable about. But, I hope it’s okay that I just comment on the fact that the whole plan is named after Enrico Mattei, who founded the state oil company, Eni, and that was actually mentioned initially when they started out initiating the plan. So I think that also reflects a little bit the structure and the aims of the plan. That it has a, I would say, strong focus on a bilateral benefit, especially regarding a focus on the energy sector. That is, of course, going to be beneficial for some African nations, no doubt about this. But, at the same time, it’s also going to benefit Italy and, maybe, the European Union countries, so there is a very strong bilateral component in the Mattei Plan. I think it’s important to remember that the UK had an Africa plan many years ago. Even the country I’m from, Denmark, had an Africa plan covering som of the aspects touched upon in the Mattei Plan, and I think the plan goes a little bit hand in hand with some of the thinking about making global funds available in the environmental sphere. But I remain concerned about the strong focus on business partnership agreements that underline the plan’s details, given the lack of evidence that such models in the past has worked for development.  

Basically, a lot of the plan is reliant on being able to create new funding mechanisms. That has been known as the additionality of engagements in Africa, and for many years the OECD has been very focused on the mobilization of private capital for development. This is also a central part of the Mattei Plan, and I think given the lack of evidence we have on whether prior engagements have been successful in mobilizing private capital, one of the core elements of the plan can be questioned. DFIs worldwide have not been successful in documenting the additionality of their investments. You could be concerned that the Mattei Plan will face similar concerns the way it’s structured. That is one of the negatives. One of the positives, I would say, is that there is this idea that we are now going to do something new. So one element of the plan is to map out the most strategic projects and initiatives already in place in Africa. And I think that is a very, very good idea so we avoid having overlapping donor engagements. The only thing that I think is a little bit problematic is that in the mentioning of the project, it’s very, very, very clear that it is Itay focused. And, if we are going to introduce this plan as a broader plan for the way that Europe should be thinking, given the chairmanship of the G7, I think we need to face the elephant in the room; the lack of donor coordination. I think this should be considered when you also evaluate the plan. But I think it’s a good idea that they are proposing to map out all current strategic initiatives.  

I would also say that the focus on the energy sector could raise some concerns. I know there is a mention of education, health, infrastructure, and so forth in the initiative. But there is no doubt that the energy sector is central to the whole strategy. And here lies the issue that I had when I was reading the outlines of the report, that being this issue about Just Energy Transition seen from the receiving end. I think it’s been a huge topic globally whether we are able to create sustainable energy initiatives that are not just increasing inequality within countries; and it’s not really transparent how the Mattei Plan is going to ensure that we do not end up in an unjust energy transition process.  

Thank you for your in-depth and comprehensive answer. I want to follow up on something you said as you mentioned overlapping projects in the region. With this in mind, I would like to talk about other initiatives that have taken place in Africa in the last decade or so. In the last ten years there has been a lot of talk about non-Western influence in Africa, particularly from Russia, Turkey and most importantly, from China. And this is concerning many in the West, including European nations and the United States, as they have historically been the most important nations when it comes to influence in Africa. From your point of view, from a development perspective, is there anything that Western countries can do to compete with initiatives such as China’s Belt and Road? And if so, what do you think is the best way for the West and the G7 to genuinely engage in development programs in Africa, that can be of mutual benefit to both sides? 

I think it’s a very good question and I think we should focus on the last part of what you said, the mutual benefits. China has been very focused on ensuring that the Belt and Road Initiative also includes a payoff for African nations and within other nations where the BRI engages. We must remember we have a comparative advantage upfront in the West. Most African nations are very, very young. Independence came late for some of these countries, and many Western countries have been engaged in Africa since their independence, with various degrees of success. But still, partnerships have been developed, and failures and successes have been faced together. I think if the Western community, the EU or the US, embrace both the successes and the failures and start building real partnerships, we have an advantage over China in that respect. So, as long as we build on the collaborative partnership model and make sure that sufficient local ownership is an essential part of the engagement with Africa, I think China may face quite severe competition as Europe and the US realize that the next Asian tiger is the African gazelle. 

Because you mentioned cooperating with these nations in Africa and the advantages that the Western world has had relative to China. Some have said that one one of these has been its willingness to take in migrants from Africa. But, there seems to be a discussion nowadays in European capitals and even the US that migration has reached a level that has become politically intolerable to a large portion of the electorate. And, as you know, there have been consecutive crises in Africa, whether it be the Arab Spring in the early 2010s or the recent string of coups in the Sahel in the last couple of years, which have created migratory pressures to move to more developed economies, in particular to Europe. So, in your view, in order to address the problems of migration that have been raised by Italy and others in this year’s G7, what is the best course of action that Western nations can take in terms of development and political projects, and which countries should these policies be targeted towards? 

This is a very timely question. I can mention that, in May, there will be a high-level panel in Copenhagen discussing exactly these issues and Italy will also take part in this and I think it will be built on a lot of the discussions that have been held around Europe recently. Especially as you also mentioned some of the crises that we have faced domestically regarding migration. There’s no doubt that we need to rethink the model. You may be aware that, for example, in Denmark, we talk about engaging in partnerships with local neighboring countries within Africa to overcome potential “risky” migration patterns. Local partner countries will for example take a large share of migrants coming from, for example, conflict areas instead of them moving to Europe to seek asylum. Such bilateral agreements, with increased donor funds as support, for example the case of  Rwanda in the Danish case; has met a lot of criticism domestically in donor countries.  

We have also seen broader agreements between the EU and Turkey. That also received a lot of domestic criticism within Europe because it was seen as unjust in terms of lifting the burden of the migration that was created by global tensions and not localized problems. So, to answer your question, because it’s a difficult question, I think also politically we need to be able to discuss within Europe that these models are not a viable option for the future, that we need to think broader and think more in the context that we do with environmental and climate concerns. Think about global funds in the context of migration as well. As I mentioned before, in terms of lifting the burden of migration and sharing the burden of migration. Because it’s not only about solving the tensions due to local cultural disputes. It’s also the financing of the increased migration that is a concern for many governments and if we can somehow pool resources together and share the risk this could make the migration discussion easier. Following the World Bank report, we need to try to be better at targeting which countries should take which migrants and how should we divide the cost within Western countries of this increased migration pressure. Because as we also know, a lot of Northern European countries are now faced with this bottleneck in labor markets where we are dependent on migration and migrants taking jobs in for example the health sector to basically help in facilitating healthcare to our elderly. So, I think there are some things that we need to discuss a little bit deeper and more thoroughly and not just consider this as a constraint to future development and political targets. 

Thank you. For the next question, I do want to get outside of Africa a little and I want to talk about this year’s G20, which ties in with last year’s in India and this year’s G7. As you know, two BRICS nations will now have held the G20 Presidency back-to-back with India having hosted in 2023 and Brazil in 2024. Both of these presidencies have included at least some aspect of reshaping global institutions to be far more inclusive. While India and Brazil have often referred to these initiatives from a political lens, it can’t be denied that there’s also a large developmental perspective when it comes to two of the largest developing nations. So, from a perspective outside of Africa, which is what is being discussed at the G7 this year, what do you think should be on the G20 agenda this year for Brazil as it applies to Latin America and Asia? 

For me this is a very difficult question. My knowledge about Brazil is quite limited and the other is that if you look at the regional aspects of Latin America you often see these financial crises emerging in pockets around Latin America and basically you see these trickle down effects or spillover effects to other economies within Latin America. That said, I would say that a lot of my fellow Latin American scholars say that there is quite a substantial amount of integration within the Latin American region. But I would say that when looking from an outsider perspective focused on regional integration, and I am not only talking economically, but also politically and also in terms of sharing the burden of migration; it is difficult to disentangle the degree and benefits of regional integration.  

Let me just give you a concrete example. One thing that I have studied is the likely spillovers of knowledge between countries, and it’s actually quite surprising the limited amount of learning and spillovers that are created and observed between countries in Latin America, as compared to for example Southeast Asia. I know this is a slightly different focus from the political one, but if I should look at it with an economic lens, I would focus on understanding better the lack of knowledge and spillovers between nations in Latin America. Why are these mechanisms less apparent than it was, for example, in the Southeast Asian region in their booming period. I know that is maybe a little bit far from what is being discussed, but I think it’s something that I’m a little bit surprised is not discussed more. There is a lot of focus on the political tensions in Latin America, and I know they are extremely important. So, I just wanted to bring a perspective that is a little bit different by giving an economic angle on what I think needs better understanding. 

That is a great perspective. Of course, discussions about political debates in Latin America go back decades, which this actually leads perfectly to my next question which ties back to the current Brazilian President. As is well known by now, President Lula da Silva of Brazil has been a big advocate of UN Security Council reform. He has been very vocal about it, as have other countries, but the likelihood that the structure of the security council will change anytime soon is highly unlikely. With that in mind, aside from UNSC reform, do you think that there are any reforms to parts of the UN or international organs that could be more realistically undertaken in the current political climate and that could benefit the global South in terms of representation either directly or indirectly? 

I am not very positive regarding this, so it’s a good question, but the outlook is not very positive, especially given the circumstances that we’re in at the moment. There’s no doubt that improving the voice of the global South in various councils, not only the Security Council, but also a larger voice in the elections of leaderships in the bigger organizations would be a first step. We know that the people that we put in power in these organizations are often influenced by their respective cultures and where they come from, and there is no doubt that if we could strengthen the hiring process in terms of making it more diverse in terms of representation in leaderships that there would be benefits. Let’s just take, for example, the World Bank and the IMF that we could maybe think a little bit out-of-the-box in terms of the structure of those institutions and make them more inclusive. That could be one step. Is that going to happen? That’s the next question. At the moment I’m not seeing it. It’s not something that is at the forefront of the discussions. I think at the moment we have a climate crisis, we have a security crisis. These are a bigger concern for some of the main countries that we are talking about here, so I’m not seeing a lot of prospects for openings during the next 5-10 years. 

Just a quick final follow-up to this question. Since we have been discussing a lot about the G7 and the G20. With the G7 mostly seen as the political arm of Western countries, whereas the G20 seen as more of an Economic Forum that bridges the divide between the major economies of the global South and the G7, do you think the G20 has historically been a good platform for major global south economies to make their views heard. 

Here you touched upon a very, very important issue and that is the link between the political and the security base, so the G7 and the more economic angle of development. And I think that the G20 may have been underemphasized in terms of its importance for the economic integration globally of its member states. Has it been only successful? No, of course not. But there have been successes and discussions that have been initiated in a global south context, due to the G20. So that is just to put the positive lens on this, but still because the political economy is so influential in driving nations forward, I think that the political side and the security side weighs in so much that it often overrules the economic angle. So, if we could somehow integrate the perspectives and discussions within the G7 and the Security Council with some of the discussions in the G20, I think it could move things forward seen from a Global South perspective. Do I think it will happen? Again, I think we are back to my answer to the former question. Economically, I think it has increased integration potential. Could it have been more successful, no doubt about this. But let’s see what happens. 

Thank you very much for agreeing to interview with us. I appreciated your insights and I am sure that our readers will enjoy your perspectives on the matter at hand. We definitely engage in some of these topics on the Y7 and Y20, so it is great to take your views into account as a professional in the field.