BRUSSELS — An estimated 8,000 attendees will flock to the European Development Days in Brussels this week, one of Europe’s biggest development conferences. Meanwhile, across town, representatives of European Union countries will be hashing out a deal behind closed doors to allow the European Commission to begin formal talks on the bloc’s relationship with African, Caribbean, and Pacific states after 2020. The 79 ACP countries agreed their position in Togo last week, but the EU is in limbo after Hungary insisted the negotiating mandate clarify that unauthorized migration is a security threat to Europe that must be stopped.
The contrast of realpolitik with EDD, a two-day networking and discussion event with few tangible outcomes, may seem stark. Members of the Brussels aid community told Devex they don't necessarily expect the event to influence policy, but see it primarily as an opportunity to raise the visibility of their work, and to debate approaches.
Since its inception in 2006, EDD has become a weather vane for ideas in global development. This year’s speakers include top brass from the EC, European Investment Bank, and Europe’s national development agencies, along with the Norwegian prime minister, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Uber’s director of public policy for the Middle East and Africa, and the Crown Princess of Denmark. Organizers have been fielding inquiries about scheduling since September last year.
EU International Cooperation and Development Commissioner Neven Mimica told Devex the event “came from the conviction that an annual gathering of development actors is needed to discuss major issues in international cooperation in an open, multistakeholder format. Ever since, we are proud that the EDDs have developed into some sort of ‘Davos of Development.’”
Mimica added that all the discussions he and his staff absorbed “feed back into how we develop our development policies.”
The budget for the event is about €3 million ($3.52 million) an EU source told Devex, adding that this has remained stable despite the number of participants rising from 5,000 in 2013 to 8,280 last year.
For Seamus Jefferson, director of the civil society confederation CONCORD, EDD is both “a networking opportunity to meet decision-makers, policymakers, and allies” and “an influencing moment to raise awareness about the work our confederation is doing and also to hear what other development actors are showcasing.”
Emily Wigens, interim Brussels director of the campaign group ONE, said “the EDDs are a great space to bounce around ideas, identify trends, and make great contacts for your next project.”
Jefferson’s tips? “Be prepared; know who will be there; plan meetings in advance with key stakeholders. The event is full of people trying to catch one’s attention. A good communication plan is needed to ensure you are visible and take the best of the event.” A well-placed tweet is a good place to start, Jefferson said, while warning to always fact-check first.
Women and girls
This year’s theme is “Women and girls at the forefront of sustainable development.” That focus won praise from civil society when it was announced, and will include sessions on women and girls’ physical safety, economic and social rights, and participation in decision-making. Expect the EC to focus on its Spotlight Initiative, a €500 million investment designed to prevent violence against women and girls.
Madge Thomas, director of global policy and government affairs at advocacy organization Global Citizen, said the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements had renewed the focus on women and girls. After a World Bank report last week estimated the loss in human capital wealth due to gender inequality at $160.2 trillion across 141 countries, Thomas said the overarching question for this year’s EDD should be “how we ensure equality for women in every sphere to unlock their potential and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?”
The consortium contracted by the EC to run EDD is overseeing the #SheIsWe social media campaign, featuring a range of ambassadors to show how empowering women benefits society. “The potential outcome is that, for once, I think the conversation on social media will be focused on the theme of this edition, which was not necessarily the case in previous years,” one of the event organizers said. “It’s difficult to keep people’s attention on social media [focused] on the theme, and this year we think we will improve that.”
Budget year in Brussels
The EC unveiled its proposal for the next seven-year budget last month, drawing fire from civil society over a plan to unite its development instruments into a single funding stream.
The backdrop to this year’s event are the negotiations over the EU’s next long-term budget, or “multiannual financial framework,” for 2021-2027. Last month, the Commission proposed uniting many of its development funding streams under a single instrument, as well as bringing the European Development Fund inside the EU budget. Expect lots of discussion about the implications of both moves, which must still be approved with the European Parliament and member states. All eyes will be on June 14, when the EC will provide more detail about how the different pillars of the single instrument — for instance, a geographic pillar ring-fencing funds for certain regions — will work.
“The next multiannual financial framework will end three years before the deadline to meet the SDGs,” said Wigens from ONE. “Decisions being made in the coming months will shape our future for almost a decade and determine the role of the EU in ending extreme poverty.”
Mimica said that aside from women and girls, the commission is expecting discussions on the future of ACP relations and the role of business in development. Participants should make sure they arrive for the start of the day on Tuesday to catch the influential director-general of the EU’s development department, Stefano Manservisi, speaking at an event at 9:30 a.m. with the foreign minister of Togo and the secretary general of the ACP group of states, among others.
Look out, too, for the session on Tuesday at 4:15 p.m.: “Transparency and accountability in addressing misconduct cases.” As the issue of safeguarding and misconduct continues to rock the aid sector, and with unanswered questions about how to encourage and protect whistleblowers, expect this session outside the main auditorium with Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, and Monique Pariat, director-general of the EU’s humanitarian aid department, to draw a crowd.
Expanding the conversation
On the logistics side, the event organizer told Devex to expect more efforts this year to improve the interactivity of sessions. Conscious of the risks of speaking in a bubble, he said the program features more than half a dozen webinars, in which participants will meet via video conference with those in lower income countries. “It’s a challenge for an event to develop the capacity to enlarge the audience in proposing different digital formats where people can be involved from abroad,” he said. Session organizers must also pay a carbon-offset fee to reduce the event’s ecological footprint. This goes toward financing projects, amounting to an emissions reduction of around 9,000 metric tons this year, according to the organizers. Each session held in the 20 meeting rooms over the two days will be recorded for later use.
“We are trying to improve the professional matchmaking opportunities, too,” the organizer said. “We are not in a business event, but some people would like to have more direct business opportunities and that could be the trend for future years — to improve the room for the private sector and to organize more business events.”
Jefferson praised the commission’s efforts to “be innovative, try new apps, organize cultural events, and assure high-level decision-makers,” although he said not all NGOs are comfortable “selling” their organization in a trade fair-style format.
Citing the prohibitive cost for small civil society organizations when it comes to securing stands and organizing seminars at the event, Jefferson mooted the idea of free slots in future years, “so we can hear from a broader range of people and perspectives — those we do not hear enough from.”
Stands at EDD begin at €1,400, which includes the carbon-offset fee, which, according to organizers, is a fraction of the price at comparable development events.