Andris Piebalgs, then European commissioner for development signs the revised Cotonou Partnership Agreement during the joint EU-ACP Council of Ministers in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on June 22, 2010. The oldest and most wide-reaching agreement between European donor countries and recipient nations is officially up for review. Photo by: European Union

The oldest and most wide-reaching agreement between European donor countries and recipient nations is officially up for review.

The Cotonou Partnership Agreement between the European Union and 79 countries, mostly former colonies, of the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific group of states governs some 30.5 billion euros ($33.3 billion) in aid over the 2014-2020 period of the 11th European Development Fund. It also contains pillars to encourage political cooperation and promote trade.

The new CPA will take effect in 2020, with an initial memorandum of understanding due in 2018, according to ACP Secretary General Dr. Patrick Ignatius Gomes. Given the number of players and the contractual nature of the accord, negotiations are expected to take the entire period.

Both the EU and the ACP have already begun internal reviews.

Last October the EU launched a 12-week comment period that closed on Dec. 31. While the results have not been made public, Devex understands that European officials are beginning to hold internal discussions.

The ACP meanwhile has been holding workshops, meetings and hearings that have included the participation of member country ambassadors in Brussels, Belgium, representatives of the European NGO umbrella group CONCORD, and the United Nations Development Program. Preparations began at the 2012 ACP summit and consultations have been held on six continents, with extensive debates planned at the ACP summit in Papua New Guinea in May.

Fundamental change

The formal process has been spiced up by the release of a report by the think tank European Centre for Development Policy Management. By challenging several basic assumptions, such as whether the special EU-ACP relationship remains relevant in the 21st century or even whether aid should be a primary tool to encourage development, the ECDPM document has set off a “a little bit of an atomic bomb in certain circles” of the Brussels development community, according to ECDPM Deputy Director Geert Laporte.

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As the direct descendant of the earlier Lomé Convention, the CPA can trace its roots to the signing of that accord in 1975. The agreements “were always heralded as masterpieces of ‘north-south’ relations,” according to Laporte, with the current pact signed in 2000.

“We have been following this for 30 years,” he noted. “We were positive in the 90s, but now we are much more skeptical because the world, Europe and the ACP have fundamentally changed.”

Emerging nations are increasingly organized along geographical lines, as with the African Union, or specific interests, notably the Alliance of Small Island States, which played an important role in the COP21 climate talks in Paris last year, according to the ECDPM report.

Sensitive political issues such as terrorism, migration and security tend to be addressed in talks between the EU and these organizations, according to Laporte. Meanwhile, the EU has concluded trade agreements with groups of countries of sub-regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS.

“These groupings have gradually taken over the role of the ACP,” said Laporte. “This leaves Cotonou only with a big pot of money, but very little economic and political traction.”

The ECDPM report also challenges the notion that aid should be the primary tool for development, especially in light of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which stresses shared, albeit differentiated, responsibility.

“Traditional north-south partnerships are based on aid dependency,” said Laporte. “Despite having a contractual agreement, despite talk of an equal partnership, you can say that one party is more equal than the other. In practice, the European Union takes all major decisions — on country allocations, on the way the money should be spent.”

Champions of the Cotonou agreement stress its staying power.

“A large number of developing countries can work with developed countries in a whole complex but integrated procedure in addressing underlying concerns — namely poverty eradication,” said Gomes. “The fact that it has had 40 years of existence means that it has acquired a certain historical legacy.”

Critical examination

But that legacy must be examined “very critically,” noted Gomes. The review process aims in part to “reorient, reinvent and reposition the ACP to deal with a new external environment, and also to build on what has been acquired in all these years.”

This new vision includes efforts to “diversify our partnerships,” moving “beyond Europe,” as Gomes put it. This includes building fruitful “south-south” relationships with countries including Brazil and India, closer cooperation with least developed countries that are not ACP members, and joint efforts based on common trade-related issues such as fisheries management.

Laporte acknowledged that opponents of development aid could use the Cotonou negotiations to further their agenda.

“That is one of the fears and to some extent it is legitimate,” he said. “You hear it not only from NGOs but also from [EuropeAid].”

“But the question is whether aid is the right tool in this moment in this global world to bring development,” added the ECDPM deputy director. “We sometimes believe that aid has been sidetracked by certain elites and that it has postponed a healthy dose of governance reforms.”

Gomes preferred to talk less about aid and more about trade and other ACP initiatives.

“We have large issues to deal with in global governance,” he said. “What are we going to do about illicit financial flows? People speak about aid. There is more money being lost illicitly by transfer pricing, or the transnationals that invest in African countries than comes in under this nebulous thing called aid.”

EU officials responsible for the CPA declined to speak on the record, but a spokesperson called the ECDPM report “an interesting contribution, amongst many others” and noted that there is “an overall agreement that there is a need to adapt the partnership to the new context and to today's common interests.”

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    Bill Hinchberger

    Bill Hinchberger is a global communications professional and educator. He studied at Berkeley and has taught at the Sorbonne. Based mostly in Paris, he spends quality time in Brazil and the United States, and works extensively in Africa and Latin America. He has served as an international correspondent for The Financial Times, Business Week, ARTnews, Variety, and others. One current focus of his work is content creation for foundations, NGOs and other organizations, especially those working on issues related to international affairs, the environment and development. He also runs training programs for professional journalists, notably in Africa, and is an associate of Rain Barrel Communications, a leading consultancy for social justice projects.