"Reconciling diversity and the common good" with a focus on Singapore

interview of Anna-Katharina Hornidge, principal intestigator of the EMERSA project at the D+C "Development and Cooperation" journal.

New interview of Anna-Katharina Hornidge, principal investigator (PI) of the SPP SeaLevel 1st phase EMERSA project and new director of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), discussing the relevance of systems theory for understanding development focusing on Singapore and commenting on both historically and more recently sociopoliticoeconomic aspects at state. Her interview was published at the D+C Development and Cooperation, a monthly journal funded by Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

To start with, Anna-Katharina Hornidge discussed extensively the difference between development and function differentiation, with the latter serving to distinguish modern societies from pre-modern ones, pointing that social systems such as the economy, science or law operate according to their own logic, making them especially dynamic, which in turn facilitates broad-based prosperity and scope for many individual decisions on how to live.

Functional differentiation is certainly an important precondition for development, the core determinant being the powerful division of labour, not just between different sectors but between functional systems, with the science system gearing to discovering truths, while the economy to maximising profits and the legal system to law abidance.

Functional differentiation results in a pluralisation of society and ultimately requires democratic discourse because top-down governance in an authoritarian style becomes impossible.

For instance, in regard to careers and personal identities, merit, personal achievements and qualifications matter more than family, faith and ethnic affiliation. Many societies with advanced functional differentiation have strong, successful economies. Examples include the Scandinavian countries, Germany and Singapore. These countries mostly, though not always, are democratically organized, tending to resolve the tensions that arise between functional systems, although this of course cannot be taken for granted.

International development agencies are important in paying attention to good governance, inclusive institutions, transparent decision-making and the recruitment of leaders according to merit, rather than family ties for instance, as these things are essential for a nation to harness its full potential.

Anna-Katharina Hornidge regarding the relation of functional differentiation and democracy aspects, suggested Singapore as a good example of successful ­authoritarian development regimes, a country she has done substantial research over the years and lived there for some time. A much smaller city state than China, Singapore calls itself a one-party democracy, and it has laid the foundations for impressive economic growth, however still, market enthusiasts tend to overlook the fact that Singapore does not simply allow market forces free reign but the government redistributes wealth with determination, supporting strong, well-functioning and performing education and health-care systems and ensuring there is enough affordable housing, attracts ‘foreign talents’ and strategically builds up economic sectors of future global relevance, such as biotechnology or creative industries. The rule of law is in force. Professional careers and personal status depend on merit, formal education and personal achievement. Markets must be in embedded in such a functionally differentiated order to prosper, but they cannot create that order themselves.

Moreover, the discussion emphasized the importance of an idea of the common good as essential for development regime, as well as than more functional differentiation may cause disintegration, such as in Singapore or China where social diversity is big to begin with, i.e. Singapore is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic city, so no one can take cohesion for granted, an aspect often underestimated from western scholars.  

On the other hand, paternalism disempowers people and can obscure existing tensions, as an example she mentioned the noticeable management of Singapore to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, but then the virus started to spread fast in migrant workers’ shelters, having only taken account of its citizens in terms of the common good, a case quite similar to EU as well where this alliance of democracies often endorses human rights, while regularly disregarding the human rights of refugees at the same time.

Moreover, to the question that we need global solutions for global challenges such as climate change, financial instability, pandemics et cetera, with the implication of requiring an understanding of aiming for a global common good and whether the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serve this purpose and whether they are suffice, A.-K. Hornidge commented thatthe SDGs are ambitious, and they certainly point in the right direction, however, broad-based support is challenged by the current crisis. Further, the language is rather bureaucratic, and multilateral decision-making is often cumbersome, an underlying reason is the divergence of values which makes it difficult to reach global consensus. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic shows just how crucial the SDGs are in terms of a shared vision of our common future. It also matters that the SDGs offer a coherent approach, indeed human, animal and planetary health are mutually interdependent and protecting them is a global common good. Unfortunately, the pandemic also means that fiscal space is shrinking, so it is becoming more difficult to achieve the SDGs.

Furthermore, A.-K. Hornidge commented on the wide divergence of values such as between the USA where individual freedom is stressed, whereas the state must have a leading role in Chinese eyes. Successful global governance geared to promoting the global common good requires more consensus and more compromise. We need more exchange and more debate. We need to get to know one another better.

The SDGs give us a glimpse of what the global common good should look like, but much must yet happen for them to become global guidelines for policymaking.

“Around the world, we must invest more in all forms of education, in line with the philosophy of enlightenment.”

“Unless people are empowered to critically assess their own situation, they will not be able to make independent decisions. People need a solid education to cope with rapid change in their natural and socioeconomic environments. Moreover, education is a precondition for understanding what matters to others. Mutual empathy will help us to find shared solutions.”

…”Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers of the USA were slave owners. Nonetheless, Jefferson wrote the beautiful words of all men being created equal and enjoying inalienable rights. This is a proposition that we should not fall behind of, while of course, we would add “women”, today. That he himself did not live up to his principles does not invalidate them. A good education system can spell out the crimes of the colonial age and endorse the validity of enlightenment at the same time. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on the same philosophy. If we forget it, we will not see development geared to the common good – neither at global nor national scale.”


Anna-Katharina Hornidge professor of global sustainable development at the University of Bonn and director of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) since March 2020. Her interview was given at the D+C Development and Cooperation, a monthly English language journal funded by Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and can be accessed at full here.