The European Union flags at the Berlaymont building in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by: Thijs ter Haar / CC BY

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The European Union officially signed a controversial development framework on Wednesday, which NGOs say prioritizes political objectives over development goals.

The European Consensus on Development is intended to guide EU development policy and shape its work on the Sustainable Development Goals until 2030, replacing a previous framework in place since 2005.

It has been approved by all three EU institutions — the Commission, the Council and the Parliament — over recent weeks, and was signed by their representatives at the European Development Days, an annual summit in Brussels.

However, it has been criticized by development organizations, who say it bolsters the bloc’s recent reorientation of aid toward the goal of tackling migration, and fails to include sufficient safeguards on the use of private finance.

The EU and its 28 member states are collectively the world’s largest development donors, providing about half of all official development assistance worldwide. The consensus places a strong emphasis on a unified and coherent approach to development. It does not set out concrete actions, but commits to a focus on eradicating poverty and addressing inequalities “to ensure that no one is left behind.” It also includes a commitment to implementing development policy in coordination with the Paris Agreement on climate change, which United States President Donald Trump pulled out of last week.

Neven Mimica, European commissioner for international cooperation and development, hailed a “landmark achievement” after the consensus was passed in a parliamentary vote last week.

He said in a statement that “with this new consensus, the EU consolidates global leadership on the Sustainable Development Goals and sends a resounding message to the world that sustainable development matters ... We will uphold our pledges and make the most of EU and member states' joint capacities to end poverty in our generation.”

But NGOs reacted strongly against the news. Oxfam International’s Deputy Director for Advocacy and Campaigns Natalia Alonso said that “positive elements” of the plan — such as the commitments on poverty and gender equality — were overrun “by short-term political interests.”

The EU has come under fire in recent times for reorienting parts of its development assistance toward tackling migration — including addressing issues such as people smuggling — after a million refugees and “irregular” migrants arrived in Europe in 2015. Critics say the policy risks blurring the line between security and development.

The consensus includes long passages on the issue of migration. It states that “through development policy, the EU and its member states will address the root causes of irregular migration.” This will include “promoting investment, trade and innovation in partner countries to boost growth and employment opportunities.” It also points to issues such as conflict, state fragility, poverty, discrimination and environmental degradation as drivers of migration, which member states will take “coordinated action” to address. It adds that the EU will “fight against smuggling of migrants and trafficking in human beings, which are sources of instability.”

Oxfam’s Alonso said that: “EU governments have chosen to put their own political objectives ahead of those of development. They are trying to stop people from reaching Europe in search of safety and dignity, instead of fighting inequality and poverty.”

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Concord, the European confederation of development NGOs, said in a press release that its members welcomed “valuable elements” of the consensus — such as the focus on small-scale agriculture and women’s rights — but were “alarmed by the instrumentalisation of development cooperation towards security, commercial and migration objectives.”

The International Disability and Development Consortium also released a statement saying that the consensus reflects a “troubling” trend in development cooperation, “effectively subordinating development of partner countries to strategic interests of the EU.” It said that “we fear the new consensus may usher an era of development cooperation removed from the actual needs of developing countries.”

All three organizations also expressed concern about the role of private finance in the consensus.

Concord said that the framework “encourages and supports an increasing role for the private sector and large corporations without sufficient evidence of the development benefits of their engagement, nor sufficient analysis of the associated risks.” It also lamented a lack of transparency around partnerships with the private sector, insufficient monitoring and redress mechanisms in cases of human rights violations or environmental damage, and a failure to identify “which type of private sector should be supported.”

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About the author

  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Editor of Devex Pro. Based in London, she helps to oversee news, features, data analysis, events, and newsletters for Devex subscribers. She previously served as Deputy News Editor and as an Associate Editor, with a particular focus on Europe. Before joining Devex, she worked as a writer, researcher, and editor for Prospect magazine, The Telegraph, and Bloomberg News, among other outlets. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals.