‘Look forward, share best practice, debate new ideas’

European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Photo by: Krystle Wright / European Union 2011

Over the past six years, it has been a top destination for heads of state, civil society leaders and others with a stake in EU development cooperation. In 2012, the European Development Days goes back to where it was born: Brussels, home to the European Commission.

This year’s EDD coincides with World Food Day (Oct. 16), and one of its focus areas - sustainable agriculture, food security and resilience - befits the occasion. The two-day event will also tackle recurring themes: inclusive growth and private sector engagement in international development.

EDD12 takes place at a critical juncture for EU external funding. EU ministers are now debating the regional bloc’s next budget, and some have suggested a cut in aid spending given the eurozone crisis. The European Union and its 27 member states make for the world’s largest donor, providing more than half of all official development assistance.

“Although I am fully aware that we are facing difficult times, cutting aid is not the right answer,” European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs tells Devex.

Piebalgs took charge of the EU development cooperation portfolio in 2010. He has overseen some of the major reforms on EU development policy, including the merger that gave birth to the Development and Cooperation Directorate General – EuropeAid and the new EU development policy road map, Agenda for Change.

In this exclusive interview with Devex, Piebalgs reaffirms why the European Union should keep its promise to meet the internationally agreed-upon aid funding target of 0.7 percent of gross national income by 2015. He also previews what’s in store for delegates at this year’s European Development Days and shares some of the big names in attendance.

What can we expect at this year’s European Development Days?

The European Development Days are very specific each year, with a focus on one facet of the Agenda for Change, our blueprint for EU development policy. Last year in Poland, they were focused on how to support democracy and human rights, in the follow up of the Arab Spring. This year, the emphasis will rather be put on economic issues: food security, the private sector and the need for social protection.

Food security will be a particularly key topic, as the EDDs will be held on World Food Day. In the wake of recent food crises in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, donors’ work in this area is more crucial than ever, and we hope the EDDs will serve as a high-profile platform on which the development community can come together to look at solutions to hunger and food crises in the long term.

The event attracts many foreign ministers and other dignitaries, some of whom have been calling lately for foreign aid cuts to weather Europe’s debt crisis. How central will this discussion be at EDD this year?

Obviously Europe’s current financial situation is in most people’s minds at the moment so will no doubt be part of the discussions.

We’re more conscious than ever that getting good value for money for our taxpayers is vital. We need to ensure that we use our aid in the most efficient way possible in order to achieve the highest impact and visible results. However, we want the EDDs to look forward and be a platform to share best practice and debate new ideas, which is key in times of constrained resources.

In any case, although I am fully aware that we are facing difficult times, cutting aid is not the right answer. First, the EU must respect its commitments to reach the 0.7 percent gross national income target for aid by 2015, and this was reconfirmed by heads of states and governments last June. Second, we have a duty of solidarity toward countries which have also been affected by the global crisis and toward the most vulnerable people. And third, we should take a long-term perspective and realize that eradicating poverty is a common objective and in our mutual interest.

One way traditional donors have tried to increase value for money is to engage the private sector more closely in development cooperation — a theme at this year’s EDD. What concrete steps is the EU planning to take in the days ahead to foster public-private partnerships for sustainable growth?

Engaging with the private sector is an area which we’re exploring more and more.

Traditionally, the EU has helped to support private sector growth in the partner countries through improving the regulatory and institutional environment in which business and companies operate. But we are also increasingly recognizing that the private sector can play an important active role in helping to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth, notably through job creation.

You can already see this in action in our work — for example, at the EU’s high-level summit on access to sustainable energy for all (SE4All) in April; we launched the new Energizing Development initiative, which should help to mobilize billions of euros by working together with development banks and the private sector to create a leveraging effect; multiplying the amount already committed by donors many times over. It is thought that some 500 million people from developing countries will gain sustainable access to energy as a result of this partnership — a shining example of what can be achieved when we work with the private sector.

This will be amplified in the future as we are currently exploring new ways of making the private sector a partner in development. Such partnerships are possible at various levels, for instance, by involving the private sector in policy dialogue, by encouraging the private sector to implement more inclusive business models that can deliver development results for the poor, by promoting responsible and business practices, and, last but not least, by using innovative financial instruments to mobilize private sector funding for development.

In addition to looking at new ways of working with the private sector, we will also continue to help our partner countries to create the right environment to enable private sector development. Both areas are actually closely interlinked: Working in partnership with the private sector can be an effective way to target the right reform needed to improve a country’s business environment — for instance, through public-private dialogue which involves the private sector in national priorities and the economic reform agenda, which helps to unlock a country’s growth potential. People cannot be lifted out of poverty without growth, and the private sector has a key role to play in this.

Another conference theme is food security — an area particularly ripe for private sector engagement, regional trade and farming practices meant to increase the resilience of communities especially in Africa and Asia. How is the European Union’s approach to food security changing, and how will that affect your implementing partners?

There are currently close to 1 billion people around the world who are chronically undernourished. Faced with such statistics, it’s clear that progress on agriculture is essential.

The Agenda for Change of EU development policy has put agriculture and food security as one of the main priorities for the coming years. Our message to partner countries is that we are ready to increase our support to agriculture and food security provided they make it one of their priorities in their poverty reduction strategies. We will succeed in ensuring food security in developing countries if governments are in the driving seat and steer our joint efforts.

The commission will also adopt a communication on building resilience and how the EU can deal more effectively with food security crises. We have been working with my colleague Kristalina Georgieva, in charge of humanitarian affairs, to define ways to help countries put in place systems which can absorb the shocks while ensuring that immediate needs are addressed.

I also want to insist on a too-often forgotten topic, the one of nutrition. This is another side of food security which we must all take into account in our aid policies. I am happy to serve on the SUN (Scaling Up Nutrition) Lead Group, which aims at raising awareness on nutrition.

That being said, the EU is already extremely active in the area of food security. Altogether, we spend around €1 billion ($1.3 billion) annually on food security. Through our action, we provide farmers with essential agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizers, equipment) and services, we increase access to local food for the most vulnerable, and encourage the development of agricultural infrastructure and services to help raise productivity. So, far it has helped around 50 million people.

I’m proud of what we’ve done so far, but realize that there is still much more to do ahead of us. We are particularly interested in engaging with the private sector going forward. As mentioned during this year’s G-8 summit, the private sector has, up to now, been the “missing link.” We are committed, through the Agenda for Change and the G-8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, to have greater engagement of the private sector on this issue.

Inclusive and equitable growth has long been a priority for the European Union, and it’s the third EDD theme this year. How does Brussels ensure aid reaches the marginalized, the minorities, the disenfranchised, when funding tends to go to broad causes or to partner governments that may have different priorities?

When I launched the Agenda for Change, I made inclusive growth the main objective. Growth is not an end per se and is not sustainable if it is not fairly distributed. Everyone must benefit from wealth creation and enjoy a minimum safety net to be able to tackle the risks of life. Despite the recent growth in the world’s economy, too often, the most vulnerable members of society (women, children, the disabled, the elderly, etc.) are left behind, unable to enjoy its benefits. Social protection still remains an unachievable goal for billions of people around the world. And we should not forget that better social protection will enable people to actively participate in wealth and job creation. This is why I wanted the commission to adopt a communication on social protection, providing our vision to support countries setting up such policies and systems.

Your question also refers to how our aid reaches the most vulnerable people. Those are, of course, the main target of EU projects and programs. We are very much active in education to enroll all kids at school, on maternal health or health programs, for instance.

Although we do give money directly to governments via budget support (when the right conditions and clear targets are in place) and to specific sectors which we feel are essential in terms of lifting people out of poverty, we also work in other ways to ensure that our aid reaches the most marginalized people. This includes a call for proposals system in which civil society groups are able to apply for funding and the Commission selects those projects which will most make a difference.

We’re also doing a lot to help create jobs for the poorest people in the countries we work in by trying to include an employment dimension in all of our programs. For example, when an infrastructure project goes ahead, it should include an employment perspective so that the jobs that are created as a result of the project will be good for development going forward.

You can see that we’re working in a variety of ways to ensure that our funding reaches those most at risk, and where most needed.

What’s the one thing you’re looking forward to the most at this year’s EDD?

The EDDs are traditionally an exciting and unique event, which enable leaders, practitioners and stakeholders of the development community to debate, exchange views and best (or bad) practice, from the policy level to very concrete experiences. It always provided me with stimulating food for thought, and I am confident this year will be as rich as the previous ones.

I’m also looking forward to welcoming leaders from many of our partner countries to the EDDs. For Africa, for instance, Macky Sall, president of Senegal; Joyce Banda, president of Malawi; Thomas Boni Yayi, president of Benin; and Ali Ben Bongo Ondimba, president of Gabon, are some of the names expected to attend this year. Their contribution to the debates will be crucial as they are the owners of the development strategies in their countries. With all this in mind, I strongly encourage everybody to join the EDD or follow it online.

For more coverage of the European Development Days, check out the official event website and stay tuned to Devex, an official media partner of #EDD12.

About the author

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    Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.