Policy, politics and power: The future for EU leadership on #globaldev

Panelists at the conference titled “Is Global Development Achievable?” in Lisbon, Portugal discuss the current and future role of European Union leadership on global development. Photo: “Is Global Development Achievable” conference.

The European Union remains the world’s biggest donor of official development assistance — collectively, the 28 EU member states and the European institutions provided 58.2 billion euros ($64.2 billion) in 2014. But is that enough for the bloc to keep its position as the pre-eminent player in global development efforts?

This was one area open for debate in Lisbon, Portugal this month at a conference titled “Is Global Development Achievable?” where speakers discussed the current and future role of the EU on the global stage.

While the contribution EU member states make on ODA is vital, policy is also important, said James Mackie, senior adviser on EU development policy at the European Center for Development Policy Management. On the sidelines of the event, Mackie told Devex that policymakers and practitioners alike need to think about the bigger picture.

“The discussion keeps on coming back to ODA. It’s important to encourage its growth and so on, but we do need to keep a sense of proportion — actually, it is only a tiny part of the financing of development.”

While ODA is essential in fragile states and conflict zones, he said, an important, long-term solution is to improve the flow of domestic resources. And for that, policy coherence for development — the buzzword of Mackie’s conference intervention — remains vital.

Improving local taxation is what will give you the large volumes of money you need to pay for education systems, health systems and social protection, according to Mackie. “You will never be able to pay [for these] out of ODA, you have to pay for it out of taxation.”

Another of the luminaries at the conference, Geert Laporte, ECDPM’s deputy director, told Devex the EU could certainly be doing better regarding global universal responsibilities to be implemented by countries worldwide in the 2030 agenda.

But first, he said, it is necessary to look closer to home at the domestic responsibilities in EU countries, to reduce the negative external effects at the global level.

“Europe is keeping very silent. It is still very strong — economically and politically — but can it be justifiable that in the [United Nations] Security Council, two out of the five countries are European member states?”

In order for the EU to be credible, Laporte said, it must offer more prominent positions to developing countries in the global governance system. Beyond good policies, he added, authorities must address the political barriers that prevent the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals also at the European level — to demonstrate that the EU bloc is ready to share power and to change its mindset on the relationship with the rest of the world. “If this happens I believe Europe has a very bright future,” he said.

Laporte expanded on these ideas with Devex on the sidelines of the Lisbon conference. Here are some highlights from that conversation:

You talked earlier about these “fantastic” SDGs that are lacking implementation. Could you elaborate on the ways they could be implemented?

It’s very important that [EU member states] systematically look for the triggers of implementation — the vested interests to resist change, the possible incentives to make certain things happen. If you don't do that homework and you just assume that if the policy is there it will be automatically put into practice, then you can't work on those elements that trigger implementation and make things work.

With the SDGs, I don't think that most EU member states realize the implications for them. They seem to understand what the implications are for the developing world, and they also realize what the implications will be for development aid — because that is the “north-south” framework within which they have always been operating. But with the SDGs, we are looking at universal responsibilities and action, so everyone has to contribute —  poor, rich, everyone has to do part of the “homework.”

I don't see this yet trickling down into the mentalities and the practices of most member states. But that's quite normal, because these things move very slowly.

One of the shifts that we would like to do in our own work at ECDPM is to invest more on what we — as Europeans — can do here to sustain the universal goals. That is a very big shift from the traditional north-south relationship, where we were mainly focusing on African development. That means that we won't work any more with only the development ministries but also with ministries of economic affairs, home affairs, defense, trade, environment and so on ... It’s a “whole of government” type of approach that will be needed in order to make the SDGs work in practice.

Geert Laporte, deputy director at the European Center for Development Policy Management. Photo by: ECDPM

The EU is facing very serious development challenges that require a more multidimensional approach. In what ways could the development community approach these challenges to be more effective implementers of change?

The EU can be more effective in the way it reaches out to the drivers of change in developing countries. What we see now in the way they do development is that sometimes they push money. You have to identify where the traction is in these developing countries, who are the actors that can really bring about change, who are the ones that can ensure that elements of the sustainability agenda are being implemented. Then you provide support in a subtle way — not with big cash flows — to these actors, with a huge potential for change for the better.

However, this requires much more in-depth political economy analysis into who are the real drivers of change in the developing countries. At home, we need to systematically sensitize our politicians that Agenda 2030 will require joint responsibilities and new types of alliances. At the moment, that message is not fully understood.

We are confronted with an agenda where we are all in the same boat. We know that we will have to work together, otherwise we will sink. That is the reality of this universal agenda and that makes it a much more attractive agenda, but also one that is much more difficult to implement.

Do you think that the EU has the collective political will to continue in its role as a major international player?

The EU is confronted with a major problem of internal solidarity. Many of the elements of the EU as a role model that we are so proud of — our social model, our social dialogue, solidarity between rich and poor, cohesion — are all under pressure. Every member state is now making its own “bill” and they systematically check how much they pay to Europe and how much they get back in return.

If you then look at a crisis like the migration crisis of the past weeks and months — it’s a shame how Europe is handling these issues. It’s a disaster, with no — or very limited — solidarity among the “new” EU member states, and so-called old member states.

And to emerge from these challenges, what concrete steps should the EU take?

On the migration issue, I think we could first be looking at how foreign policy — or better, the lack of foreign policy — has created major problems in certain parts of the world. This lack of a common stance and common EU foreign policy has contributed to tensions and sometimes even chaos, as we have seen in the Middle East. I am not saying we were the creators of the tension — there are of course internal factors that provoked situations that got out of hand — but sometimes we aggravate the situation and don't contribute to problem-solving.

Slow or poor decision making in Europe may contribute to instability, to insecurity of which we have seen the dramatic consequences with the recent wave of massive migration to the EU. Unfortunately, most politicians don't develop a longer-term perspective to address the structural problems of insecurity and inequality. Instead, they react instantly and — in many cases — also in a repressive way. The best way, [according to some politicians] is to close the borders and to prevent boats leaving the Libyan coast, but that is not a structural solution.

We need to find other ways of dealing with this tragedy by adopting a longer-term perspective. The results of these more structural efforts won’t be visible in the next five years — all this takes time. But stability, security, economic development, a fight against inequality ... all these factors will contribute to a much more stable environment, where people do not feel the need anymore to risk their lives in trying to desperately reach our continent.

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About the author

  • Helen Morgan

    Helen Morgan is an Associate Editor at Devex. She has a background in human rights, radio and journalism, and has written for a variety of international publications while living and working in Buenos Aires, New York and Shanghai. She is now based in Barcelona and supports editorial content on campaigns and media partnerships at Devex. She is currently studying a master's degree in contemporary migration.