Concord’s Justin Kilcullen on EEAS, value for money and national security

Justin Kilcullen, president of the European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development, or Concord. Photo by: CIDSE / CC BY

Although the European External Action Service is now fully operational, the question on how the new diplomatic corps’ work will affect European development cooperation remains unresolved. This situation is a cause of worry for Justin Kilcullen, president of the European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development, or Concord.

Kilcullen’s unease is not new. In April 2010, Concord and other leading European development NGO coalitions threatened to sue the European Union over a perceived plot for EEAS to take charge of development cooperation, which they said would breach the Lisbon Treaty. The groups backed down only after the European Parliament issued a decree affirming that development aid would continue to be independent from the EU’s foreign policy.

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Devex met with Kilcullen on the sidelines of the 2010 European Development Days in early December in Brussels. In this first part of our two-part interview with the Concord president, he noted that the next two to three years will see EEAS carving out its role in Europe’s international cooperation, and it is key for civil society groups to make their voice heard at the European Union during this crucial period to preserve the independence of development as a policy area.

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How does the establishment of the European External Action Service impact the relations of civil society groups with the European Union?

For us, the external action service, obviously, is reshaping the way we do work, in the way, obviously, Europe relates to the outside world. For civil society involved in development work, the issue for us is, where will the development activities of the commission [European Commission], of the member states fit within the overall external action policy?

The Lisbon Treaty is very clear: Development cooperation is an activity in itself. It has its own place; it has its own articles. In the previous treaties, which were incorporated into Lisbon, it was a very clear mandate for the European Union to put poverty eradication at the heart of development policies and to engage in developing countries on that basis.

If [development] becomes part of a wider external affairs policy, how is that focus on poverty eradication to be balanced with a focus on security, a focus on migration, a focus on greater pangeo [pan-geographic] political relationships between China, United States, and so on? …

At the first meeting of the development ministers chaired by Miss Ashton, the Concord, representing the European NGDOs [non-governmental development organizations] right across Europe, was not present or not invited to participate for the first time in about three years at these development ministers’ meetings. Many of the issues that Miss Ashton wanted to talk about were these wider issues – security, migration and so on. And she felt there’s no particular role for civil society to play in that discussion. Now, we made strong representation about this, and we have been assured that we will be included in future meetings as appropriate. …

We do need now to make sure, in our representation to the External Action Service, to the development commissioner, that our voice is an important voice. It is not the only voice – it’s an important voice — that has to be heard, that needs to be heard in these discussions. And we will wish to ensure that civil society remains at the heart of the dialogue around development cooperation.

The European Union is stressing the role of consulting with civil society organizations, for instance, through a structured dialogue, and designing new strategies to improve CSOs’ participation. Yet, in the implementation of EEAS, the involvement of civil society seems to be weaker. What’s your take on this?

That is our dilemma because what was a very clear pillar of external relations, the development cooperation, is now becoming less clear as other concerns are impinging upon us. And that is why, for instance, you can see how ministers would say, “Well, civil societies are fine for development cooperation, but these are other issues that are none of their concern, therefore why should they be [involved]?”

For us, the struggle is to ensure that development remains a key sector with its own objectives that is focused on poverty eradication, and that other issues, which are of legitimate concern in terms of external relations, do not change the status of development. And that is a constant struggle. And one of the questions we would have for [European Commissioner for Development Andris] Piebalgs, for instance, [is] how is he able to make sure that he can assert himself as the development commissioner, and that his independence of action around development issues is respected?

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We’re still at the time when none of these is clear. Obviously, the external action services have only been put together. These will be worked out over the next two to three years, and it’s important that we are very active at this stage, and we have [to have] our voice heard. And if we see things developing in a way we see [that it] goes against the interests of development work, we’ve got to [be] shouting very loudly and clearly and putting pressure on our ministries to ensure that the development aspect is respected.

Do you think EEAS will also impact EuropeAid’s operations?

>> A Conversation with EuropeAid Director-General Koos Richelle: Part 1

I have no doubt that, in this new setup, there will be an evolution of how the external service operates and how the development [directorate-general will work], in that it will find itself in a new environment. What is important is we can’t – if you like – stop progress. Things are always changing: You can’t just freeze things and say, “That’s it, and nothing can change this forever.”

What’s important is that the development voice is strong in that new setup, that it asserts itself, that it is understood, that ministers see that in many of the issues which they are concerned about, good development work in the poorest countries will help security, will help counter terror, [and] not in the sense of putting restrictions on people. But if you have good socio-economic development, if people have hope in their own countries, if people are not disillusioned and angry at being excluded and don’t see the need to resort to violence to express themselves and rather can participate in their own societies, express themselves through political processes and take charge of their own development, in the long run, this is what will make Europe secure. This is what will make it a safe place; this is how we will enable us to trade with these countries to grow our markets, to have international trade that benefits everybody.

The problem is that the politicians don’t have a long-term view. Politicians look at the immediate needs of the next election. None of these issues can be resolved in four years or five years [of] electoral cycles. These are 10-, 12-, 15-year processes that will see change come slowly and surely. And this is part of the problem we face now – this constant demand that the development sector show results. [Some would say,] “Where is the value for money? I’ve aid today, and I want to see the results tomorrow.” Development doesn’t work like that.

Then, unfortunately, we hear people complaining, being frustrated that we’ve been putting so much into development work for the last 20 years, but [progress] hasn’t happened. But, of course, one of the problems is we haven’t been putting enough into development work. We’ve made the commitments to the U.N. targets; we’ve made the commitments to the Millennium Development Goals. But the governments are falling short: We haven’t put the money into development aid we promised. Since the G-8 summit in 2005, we are now euro70 billion (USD90 million) behind our commitments to development aid. So, I think this is where ministers have to be challenged. You cannot look for value for money and quick results and then not deliver the money you promised in the first place. And this is why a strong voice for development is very important in the new External Action Service.

In the past, you talked about the tyranny of the MDGs. After the New York summit, what is your opinion on the MDG model? Should anything in it be changed? At what stage are we now?

When I made that comment about the tyranny of the MDGs, what I was saying was that the MDGs de-politicized development. Issues of poverty and exclusion are political issues, and you cannot resolve that with technical solutions. And what I was saying was that the MDGs set up sets of targets which can only be measured by numbers: How many girls go to schools? How many women are there in parliaments? How many children are receiving vaccination? How many wells are being built to provide water? And it’s all numbers and figures.

In many ways, what we are trying to do was to overcome the problems of poverty and marginalization and alienation, unchanging the structures that created those situations in the first place. I think that’s probably done so far, and that is why at the summit in September, we saw the progress on MDGs has been disappointing.

So, we have five years to go, and what I would say is that MDGs continue to be a valid objective. They create an agenda for discussing development, but they will not be achieved until key political decisions are made – in the European context, for instance, policy coherence for development. We will not fulfill our obligations under the MDGs if our trade policies, our taxation policies and our agricultural policies continue to undermine the very efforts we are making to try achieving the MDGs.

We would not achieve the MDGs until the rightful place for women in the development process has been established, as key players whose voices must be heard and who deserve to be at the table alongside everybody else, taking part in decisions that affect their lives. We won’t be there until we have that issue resolved. We won’t get results until the trade issue has been resolved.

So, that, I think, continues to be the frustration: that the donor countries do not want to address the underlying causes. Because it has a direct impact on our own lives, on our own politics and our own countries, they want to keep the problem out there. That was our challenge to the summit when it took place. The summit documents said all the right things. The political will to deliver, honestly, I think, perhaps has increased a little bit because the potential embarrassment of failing on the MDGs spectacularly is such that it is now putting pressure on governments. But it is a long hard struggle.

EuropeAid is developing a structured dialogue to involve civil society. In your opinion, how is this civil society mechanism working? Do you think more resources are needed?

I’m not involved in the structured dialogue personally. It is done by our officers in Brussels and by the Brussels-based members of Concord. In a general sense, what we would say is we welcome [a] structured dialogue. We are very aware that sometimes, this can be seen as a talk shop to keep this kind of group happy while other things are going on. But once one has offered an opportunity to engage, we have to engage.

As civil society, I think we’ve structured our approach to it very well, in that different members of the civil society’s side of the table take the lead on specific issues. Concord is the lead voice on development matters, you have the climate change people lead on climate change, human rights networks who lead on human rights. So, we are able to bring our expertise to the table and support each other in our engagement with the commission [European Commission] on these issues.

Is it achieving anything? Well, I think we have been able to make it into a more constructive dialogue as it has progressed, and I think we need to always kind of strive to make it so and to challenge the commission as to where this dialogue is going and how it is impacting on how they are thinking, and to ensure that what is being said is taken into account, and that’s not just being used, if you like, as a safety valve for civil society to be allowed to sound off and to keep them happy.

Read Concord President Justin Kilcullen’s thoughts on EU-China collaborations in Africa and ways European NGOs may work more efficiently.

About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.