European Development Days: What’s this year’s buzz?

Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, speaks during the opening ceremony of the 2010 European Development Days in Brussels. Photo by: European Union

The year’s top European gatherings of foreign aid officials opened this weekend in Brussels under vastly different circumstances than its 2009 predecessor: The controversial European External Action Service has been launched. September’s U.N. summit in New York showed how far many countries are from reaching the Millennium Development Goals. And, last week’s Africa-EU summit in Tripoli suggested the need for a new approach to the former continent’s development.

Here are some of the main themes emerging at this year’s European Development Days, held Dec. 6-7 in the Belgian capital and home of the European Parliament, EuropeAid and other EU agencies:

1) EEAS’s impact on EU aid policy

Many within the development community fear that with the implementation of EEAS, foreign assistance could become a political tool used to achieve the EU’s diplomatic, trade and security objectives. The European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development, or Concord, had initially threatened to sue the EU over what it perceived as subordinating international development to political concerns.

Civil society remains worried about its limited ability to impact the EEAS’s implementation process, Concord President Justin Kilcullen told Devex in Brussels.

Stay tuned to read our full interview with Kilcullen in the coming days!

2) Solidarity, innovation, sustainability

This year’s EDD gathering began, as always, with a host of speeches. On Monday, José Manuel Durão Barroso, president of the European Commission, outlined the three pillars of Europe’s international cooperation: solidarity, innovation and sustainability.

“European Union development policy needs to modernize aid,” he said, on the issue of innovation. “We need to make it work stronger by acting as a catalyst for growth. We need to focus on private sector activity, regional integration and international trade. We also need to look into innovative ways of financing. We can no longer look into the depleted national budgets as the only source of aid finance. While we welcome the agreement of the European governments to keep their promises on aid it is important to look at new ways of financing development.”

Barroso cited the EU Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund as a “successful example” of this approach: So far, euro210 million in grants from the European Commission and EU member states have been blended with loans from the European Investment Bank, bilateral European financing institutions and others. The result, Barroso said, is total financing of over euro2 billion for 35 regional infrastructure projects in sub-Saharan Africa.

3) EU budgeting

Ambitious policies are needed that are effective, coherent, sustainable, focused, innovative and people-oriented. The European Parliament wants to ensure that every euro is well spent.

The question is: What innovative financial mechanisms may improve aid effectiveness, and how may they be implemented? Passing a budget is never easy for the EU parliament, and substantial reform may complicate matters. But without resources, many reform ideas will be dead on arrival.

4) Money, money, money

Most EU member states are still far from reaching the target of spending 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product on international cooperation. Reaching the target is, first and foremost, a question of political will, European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs has said.

Piebalgs pointed to the United Kingdom as an example for a cash-strapped country planning severe budget cuts while ring-fencing development funding – without significant public protest.

People understand poverty remains an important issue to tackle around the globe, especially in times when economic hardship hits home, said Lesley-Anne Knight, Caritas International CEO and this year’s EU ambassador of the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion.

Stay tuned to read our full interview with Knight in the coming days!

5) Emerging donors: threat or opportunity?

New donors are emerging in Brazil, China, the Middle East and beyond. But how to engage them, and how to address some of these countries’ human rights records? European leaders have been ramping up partnership talks with emerging donors, but appear to be struggling still on some of these questions.

Read our five-part article series about China’s foreign aid strategy and how the EU and others are taking note.

6) The role of civil society

This year, the EU created a variety of mechanisms and networks for civil society to discuss aid policy. Concord has asked NGOs to join them and make their voices heard.

At an EDD session on Monday, civil society representatives stressed the importance of networks as instruments to build a dialogue with the EU, correct NGOs inefficiencies and share information about advocacy campaigns and ways to win funding. They also help especially younger NGOs with little financing to build partnerships and become part of EU-funded projects.

Networks “help to find the way to Brussels,” said Adreas Vogt, Concord’s membership and networking manager.

Then again, civil society leaders stressed that their new structured dialogue with EU leaders will only be effective if their recommendations are being taken into account as EU policy is being drafted. It might take some time to see whether EU leaders are listening.

7) Aid to Africa

Africa remains the top region for European development assistance. But, as last week’s Africa-EU summit in Tripoli suggested, a series of complex reforms – and a good amount of political will on both continents – may be needed to deliver aid effectively and sustainably.

The message from civil society, at least, is clear: Africa cannot wait.

8) Children’s rights

EU parliamentarians raised the issue at a press conference. As always, the crux is money: It is in short supply. But also, is is necessary to better understand what is going on in the field. This could be done by creating in-country panels with children civil society representatives, lawmakers said, or by improving data collection from partners in the field.

9) Aid as an investment

Aid-for-trade. Private-sector development. Inclusive growth. All buzz words floating around Brussels these days.

Definitions – and potential solutions – abound, though. How can an international donor give voice to SMEs in the developing world? As expected, there were many answers at this year’s EDD.

10) The International Monetary Fund’s role

The IMF will continue to lend money at zero interest to low-income countries, and otherwise focus on policy advice, finance and capacity building. Given IMF’s raised profile following the global financial slump, many in the development community continue to wonder how the organization’s work might affect theirs.

11) South Korea’s aid effectiveness meet in 2011

World leaders will meet next year in Busan, South Korea, to discuss aid effectiveness. The gathering will determine how to follow up on the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and its successor, the 2008 Accra agenda for action.

Creative solutions are needed, but what will be the EU level of ambition in the context of a changing global aid architecture? What are the benefits of South-South cooperation as compared to traditional aid relations? Should OECD Development Assistance Committee structures be reformed, or a completely new organization set up with new rules?

Again many questions, and many potential solutions.

Written by Rolf Rosenkranz based on reporting by Elena Pasquini.

About the author

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    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.