A rising star of French aid?

Hervé Berville, economist and member of the French parliament. Photo by: Antoine Lamielle / CC BY-SA

PARIS — When French President Emmanuel Macron needed someone to lay out the options for reforming French aid, he landed on Hervé Berville, a Rwandan-born economist and freshman politician in France’s national assembly.

The 28-year-old was adopted by a French couple after being evacuated from an orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda, by the French army during the 1994 genocide. Brought up in Brittany, and educated in Lille and the London School of Economics, he worked for two years with the French aid agency Agence Française du Développement in Mozambique.

It was in Kenya in 2015, while working as a research associate at the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, that Berville started following Macron, who was then economy minister in France’s center-left government. Attracted by Macron’s ideas on greater European integration, the need to tackle social mobility in France, and the end of traditional left-right politics, he started contributing ideas to the Youth with Macron movement from Nairobi.

“When the United Kingdom left the EU [European Union, in June 2016] I was like ‘OK, something is really changing. Something we thought would be impossible can be possible right now. Even if this guy [Macron] has no party, no political history, what he’s saying is what I believe,’” Berville told Devex. He returned to Brittany at the end of 2016 and was elected member of parliament in May 2017, one of 23 politicians under the age of 30 who entered the French parliament with Macron’s party, La République en Marche.

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As a spokesperson for LREM, Berville does not want to be known only as the “development guy” in Paris. But when Macron’s office called, the answer was easy. “It was an honor,” Berville said at a ritzy brasserie opposite the national assembly in Paris. “The Elysée called me and said, ‘We thought about something you might be interested in: The president, the prime minister, and the foreign affairs minister really want ideas on how we can modernize our [development] policy ...’ I said ‘OK, let’s go.’”

Berville’s report on “the modernization of partnerships and international solidarity policy” was released in August, just as Macron backed an upcoming bill to reset France’s development priorities and committed an extra billion euros for the sector in the country’s 2019 budget — part of his push to spend 0.55 percent of gross national income on official development assistance by 2022, up from 0.38 percent in 2016.

After talking with AFD, the World Bank, European institutions, and many others, Berville made 36 proposals, some of which were already “in the pipeline” in French development circles, according to Philippe Jahshan, president of Coordination SUD, the French NGO platform, which was also consulted. Laurence Breton-Moyet, executive director for strategy, partnership, and communication at AFD, told Devex in September that some of the report’s ideas were shared with staff at the French development agency. “Hervé Berville met a lot of people,” she said.

One of the report’s proposals is to create an EU commissioner for Africa — an idea also being pushed by German development minister Gerd Müller. That will be decided by the next leader of the European Commission, alongside member states, after EU elections in May. Berville, who envisages the role working alongside the EU high representative for foreign affairs, says it would send a political signal on both sides of the Mediterranean about the importance of the partnership in tackling challenges such as climate change, trade, and migration.

He is not so sure if an EU development commissioner — the post currently held by the Croatian Neven Mimica — “is still appropriate in terms of the signal we want to send.” Speaking in rapid-fire English, he corrects his reference to “development” to speak of “investment and partnership” — a reflection of the terminology preferred by Macron, who invokes “solidarity investment” [investissement solidaire].

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“We really want to move from an aid agenda to an investment and partnership agenda,” he said. “We can fairly say it’s not about development. It’s about what our priorities are, continent to continent … what is our political relationship? This [Africa commissioner] would be in charge of developing, maintaining, fostering this relationship.”

The report was considered at an interministerial meeting of the French government. According to Berville, some of the ideas that won backing included: more support for embassies to work with local civil society; the creation of an evaluation body, modeled on the U.K.’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact; a greater focus on the diaspora; and a Tour de France featuring Berville and the secretary of state responsible for development, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, in town-hall meetings on the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Most [French] people know the challenges we are facing, but we need to try and join the dots,” he said, citing issues such as security, climate change, a shifting alliance with America, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

While doing economic analysis with AFD between 2013-2015, Berville says he saw the importance of donors coordinating and not all trying to work in every sector. “I realized how hard it is for a government … to coordinate 19 different donors, each with their own agenda,” he said. “There is supposed to be joint programation from the EU, but let’s face it, sometimes it’s not really what it should be.”

Development “is not a debate between technicians and engineers, or a financial debate. It’s a political question, which must be championed at the highest level.”

— Hervé Berville, economist and member of the French parliament

In addition, he said, “we need to make sure that our investment goes to the most vulnerable and fragile people. The macrolevel is really important, but let’s look much more at the microlevel, at some really small initiatives but with strong impact. For example, [small- and medium-sized enterprises]. Investing in much smaller tickets can also foster economic development.”

With his report submitted, Berville is giving more time to national politics, foreign affairs, and weekly visits to his constituency, but Thursday mornings are still dedicated to championing his recommendations for French aid. Jahshan said it would be “logical” for Berville to feature as a rapporteur or co-rapporteur on the upcoming development bill. And although it is still early days, Jahshan said that in the future, “secretary of state for development wouldn’t be illogical [for Berville] given the work he has done.”

Although French development policy has been incorporated into the foreign affairs ministry since 1998, Berville said that, prior to Macron, development was sometimes considered a technocratic issue, with little political direction brought to bear on bodies such as AFD. The recent funding increase — including more spent through grants on sectors including health and education — as well as the development bill; the creation of a development council chaired by the president; and a white paper being prepared by the foreign ministry on its development priorities, are the proof that this has changed, Berville said.

“In previous years, there was no political will. The proof is that the [aid] budget only fell,” he said. Development “is not a debate between technicians and engineers, or a financial debate,” he added. “It’s a political question, which must be championed at the highest level, and Emmanuel Macron does that.”

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.