Macron's development vision takes shape

French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo by: Mauro Bottaro / European Union

BRUSSELS — It’s been an eventful end to the summer in French development, as President Emmanuel Macron begins to push his vision for aid.

Addressing ambassadors in Paris at the end of last month, Macron called for a new law to encapsulate his development agenda, saying he wanted to foster “solidarity investment” [“investissement solidaire], including more partnerships with civil society, youth, business, and diasporas, and more money for ambassadors to support local initiatives. Those points were among the recommendations in a government-commissioned report delivered the previous week by Hervé Berville, a member of parliament from Macron’s La République En Marche party.

Then, last Monday, the French aid agency, Agence Française de Développement, issued its strategic plan for 2018-2022, as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced France would quadruple its grant assistance to €1.3 billion ($1.51 billion) in 2019 to better reach 19 priority countries in Africa.

That move drew praise from civil society, though Friederike Röder, EU and France director at ONE, argued “we shouldn’t get too excited.” Röder said despite being one of the world’s major aid donors with a long-proclaimed interest in the world’s poorest countries in Francophone Africa, “France up until now only has €300 million in bilateral grants, which is ridiculous.”

“It’s about responding to the paradox of French development policy,” Le Drian told reporters. “Without margin of maneuver, in recent years, it was often solvent countries that were the beneficiaries of our aid, and this [strategy] is about completely re-orientating that logic.”

Marcus Manuel, senior research associate at London-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute, said poor nations have little ability to carry debt. “It’s interesting that [France] are choosing to rebalance, so they’ve got an instrument that allows them to reach the very poorest countries,” Manuel said. “While there is a lot of investment need, there are some [sectors] that you can only reach with grants.”

Macron aims to hit 0.55 percent of gross national income spent on official development assistance by the end of his mandate in 2022 — up from 0.38 percent in 2016, a step toward the 0.7 percent United Nations-set benchmark. A meeting of the Interministerial Committee for International Cooperation and Development in February oversaw the planned budgetary path to 0.55 percent; the incorporation of technical assistance agency Expertise France into the AFD group; and the creation of an ad hoc development council to be chaired by Macron.

“Financial means alone won’t be enough,” the president told the ambassadors last month. “It’s a new method that’s necessary, both for France and its partners.”

The strategic plan outlines five overarching commitments for AFD: To be 100% “compatible” with the Paris Climate Agreement; to ensure all projects reinforce social cohesion and well-being, including access to education and gender equality; to engage in fragile contexts in close collaboration with defense and diplomatic efforts; to increase financing for non-state actors; and to work with new partners to boost knowledge-sharing and effectiveness.

“The ambition of this strategic plan is [for AFD] to become a platform for development policy,” its CEO Rémy Rioux told reporters. He added that AFD, including its private sector financing arm Proparco, and soon Expertise France, have “a new responsibility” to identify and bring together all French actors “who want to invest, and take the risk, in the [global south].”

The strategic plan adds that for AFD, becoming a “platform” means being open to new partnerships, reinforcing its financial model, welcoming new collaborations and expertise, and integrating the benefits of digitalization.

“These are very dynamic days for AFD people, but very exciting days,” Laurence Breton-Moyet, executive director for strategy, partnership, and communication at AFD, told Devex. “We want to put some kind of new questions on the table. We are not sure we have the answers to all of them, but it’s a very good dynamic to push the teams and the community to think differently.” One example, she said, was the aim of ensuring projects are “100 percent Accord de Paris.” This involves AFD teams evaluating not only the project itself, but how it fits into the partner country’s trajectory away from fossil fuels and the need to prevent locking-in a reliance on dirty energy.

Berville’s report criticized French aid for often overlooking the poorest countries in Africa; insufficiently evaluating its own impact; and struggling to involve all stakeholders, including the private sector. Breton-Moyet said AFD agrees with much of that critique, adding that too little money for grants in the past had left social sectors in the poorest countries underserved. “At the end of the day we didn’t have enough resources to be at the level of what could be the strategic ambition of France, that’s for sure,” she said.

“We have a tendency to invest in a public agency and to concentrate all the efforts there.”

— Philippe Jahshan, president of Coordination Sud

Philippe Jahshan, president of Coordination Sud, the French NGO platform, said the new strategy is “going in the right direction.” However, it remained to be seen how well AFD’s focus on partnerships extended to civil society. “In France, the amount of aid that goes through civil society is very weak, and the NGO dimension of our cooperation is very weak. We have a tendency to invest in a public agency and to concentrate all the efforts there.”

Foreign Minister Le Drian said that bilateral aid would also be increased in proportion to that sent through multilateral channels. Bilateral aid had fallen in recent years, he said, but was “essential for projecting our geographic and sectoral priorities internationally.” Thematically, Le Drian said the priorities for the extra allocation of €1 billion would include €500 million for education, youth, gender equality, health, and nutrition. Climate and biodiversity, and operations in crisis and fragile situations, would each receive around €200 million, with the rest going to decentralized cooperation and governance.

Manuel, who chaired the U.K. cross-government group responsible for coordinating action between the development, diplomacy, and defense departments from 2005 to 2010, also welcomed Macron’s “3D” approach to better align all three actors. Having worked on the OECD peer review of French aid in 2007, Manuel said France was less joined up in this regard than the United Kingdom.

“Once you start really coordinating on joint objectives you can achieve a lot more,” Manuel said, pointing to successful work by the U.K. and others to stabilize Sierra Leone. “Otherwise you just tend to do individual bits and pieces, which are quite sensible but that haven’t got the same gains as if you do it holistically … Otherwise defense people just move in and say ‘well, we need to train this army’ and then go away again.”

Röder said the roughly €6 billion overall increase in development spending expected over Macron’s mandate puts France in a uniquely powerful position. "While it is still catching up because of low levels of ODA in the past, France is the G-7 country today that will have the biggest increases coming in,” she said. “This means also the biggest room of maneuver to decide how to use that money and shape development policy even beyond France and the partner countries they work with."

Editor’s note: Some of the quotes in this story have been translated from French.

Update, Sept. 13, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that France would quadruple its grant assistance to €1.3 billion ($1.51 billion) in 2019.

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.