Thousands of representatives from the worlds of politics, civil society and business gathered in Brussels last week for Europe’s biggest annual development summit — the European Development Days — to discuss some of the key issues facing European aid.
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With high-level contributions from speakers including Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the new head of the World Health Organization; Neven Mimica, European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development; and several heads of state, the summit came at a critical moment.
Many in the development sector are looking to Europe for new leadership in the face of President Donald Trump’s “America First” administration — a point that permeated the conference, though often under the surface.
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker warned against “the temptation to look inwards” in the face of suffering around the world in his opening speech.
But challenges exist in Europe too, as NGOs note a shift in priorities among European donors — which they see as confirmed in a new development framework signed during the summit — and uncertainty hangs over the political situation in the United Kingdom, traditionally a development leader in Europe. Some British delegates left the second day of the conference early to vote in a knife-edge election back home, with questions remaining about the leading Conservative Party’s intentions on official development assistance and what the impact on aid might be as the country negotiates its exit from the European Union.
Throughout many conversations was a sense that Europe would step up in a bid to compensate for the loss of US leadership on development aid - but that it cannot fill the gap alone.
The American elephant in the room
The changing role of the United States in the global development landscape was a leitmotif throughout the sessions. Though not always mentioned by name, recent decisions made by President Trump on issues including development funding, climate change and reproductive rights loomed over the conference.
After the United States president pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, many are looking to the European Union for new leadership — but it is with partnerships as much as money that it could make a difference, experts say.
“I would say that the European Union has been and shall be the global leader ... in development policy, and under this [new framework] we will strengthen our role and strengthen the responsibility that comes with such a leadership. The same goes for climate action,” said Mimica during a press conference.
“We shall continue to be ambitious, and to keep the Sustainable Development Agenda on track, and to keep the Paris Agreement on track. We are the largest global actor in development and climate action — but we are not the only one. We cannot do everything alone,” he said, stressing the importance of new and existing partnerships.
Sweden’s Secretary of State for International Development Cooperation Ulrika Modéer spoke to Devex about the loss of US funding for family planning — warning that although some European governments upped their contributions in the wake of Trump’s reinstatement of the “global gag rule” earlier this year, they would not be able to reverse the trend alone. “We need to broaden the alliances and see that there are movements elsewhere and [that] the EU is not the only actor,” she said.
Delegates also stressed the relationship between women’s rights and climate change, noting that a pedalling back on reproductive rights would have environmental implications. United Nations Sustainable Development Goals advocate, Alaa Murabit, talked to Devex about the relationship between gender equality and climate change.
A new development agenda for a new era: Migration and climate change
Delegates also talked about a changing European development agenda as it responds to these challenges and others.
A new Consensus on Development — replacing a previous development framework in place since 2005 — was signed into force at the summit’s opening ceremony. While praised for some elements — such as its commitment to the eradication of poverty and the inclusion of climate change — NGOs have raised concerns about other aspects, including the role of migration and the private sector.
Norbert Neuser, a German member of the European Parliament and a member of the Committee on Development, said: “It was necessary after more than 10 years to come to a new consensus [on development] because we have new challenges. To mention two very important ones — one is migration and the other is climate change. [These are] both issues not covered under the old consensus, so it was necessary to come up with more ideas about how to tackle them.”
However, he added that “in the middle of the consensus is still the fight against poverty… We were looking at how to organise this fight against poverty better, so that was the reason we were looking to have the member states more engaged in the 0.7 target” of spending on ODA. The new consensus also needed to absorb the SDGs, he said.
Both migration and climate change were very high on the summit’s agenda. Several high-level representatives and heads of state used their opening speeches as an opportunity to address the climate challenge, with Amina J Mohammed — deputy secretary-general of the U.N. — asserting that the organization would not allow the Paris Agreement to “unravel further.”
With a particular focus on Africa at the conference, and the attendance of the presidents of Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana and Malawi among others, the question of migration and how it should be included in the development agenda was repeatedly addressed.
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The reorientation of some European aid towards tackling migration has been highly controversial, as Devex has reported. While the EU and some member states argue it is a natural fit within development — on the basis that reducing poverty and inequality also reduce the motivation to move — NGO representatives at the summit expressed concern about the diversion of funds from the least developed countries, which tend to be less affected by migration, toward key transit areas, and about the securitization of aid.
Alongside these conversations and others, came talk about the need to improve the monitoring, transparency and accountability of development programming. In an interview with Devex, Mimica said this is an area that may have been “a bit neglected” in the first years of the Sustainable Development Agenda, and that there would be increased focus on it going forward.
Put your own house in order
Finally, a number of speakers highlighted that many of these priorities — including gender equality, climate change and migration — affect developed as well as developing countries, and suggested a broader approach that de-emphasizes the distinction between the two.
“We're all in the same boat — it cannot be between developed and developing countries,” said Juncker in his opening speech. “There cannot be differences made between those who give and those who receive, between Europe and Africa ... This is a partnership of equals. And it is clear when we look at migration or at climate change [that] these are shared challenges that affect us all to an equal extent.”
Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway, also said it is clear “that all countries of the world, rich and poor alike, have work to do at their own national level, whether you are Norway or Nigeria ... We are all developing countries,” she said, describing this as a transformational approach to development.
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