Political and development leaders meet in Brussels this week at a critical moment for the future of official development assistance.
With President Donald Trump wanting to slash the United States aid budget, all eyes in the sector are on Europe. The European Union and its 28 member states are collectively the world’s largest providers of aid, accounting for about half of all ODA annually.
But uncertainty shrouds Europe, too, amid a tide of political populism. Elections in the continent’s biggest bilateral aid donor — Germany — are approaching in October; while its second biggest — the UK — is facing its own election this week, ahead of entering negotiations on its departure from the bloc. Debates about the definition and direction of ODA have also escalated.
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It is in this context that more than 5,000 people from 140 countries are gathering in Brussels on June 7-8 for the European Union’s biggest annual summit on development cooperation and humanitarian aid — the European Development Days — centering on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The EU says it hopes to focus on “a balanced approach between the three dimensions of sustainable development:” Economic, social and environmental issues.
With high-level representation from politics and civil society across Europe and beyond, observers will be watching for the key debates that could shape European development assistance going forward.
Devex rounds up four of the top topics to watch.
Investing through the private sector
Engaging the private sector has become a focus area of many global development forums and the EDD is no different. Under the banner of this year’s theme, “Investing in Development,” the EU is highlighting that “a successful implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals requires — alongside the contribution from the public sector — an increased investment of the private sector.”
Among the high-level leaders due to speak at the summit are several from the world of business — including Paul Polman, chief executive officer of Unilever — with 21 scheduled events and stands dedicated to the subject of partnering with the private sector. Those events include, notably, a convening of the EU-Africa Business Forum — a regular channel of communication between European and African business leaders who are set to discuss job creation for Africa’s young and growing workforce.
The EU says that “strong and effective partnerships can provide the solutions needed to reach the SDGs and provide a decent life for all.” But some European NGOs are wary of the growing role of the private sector in the region’s development activities. Concerns include the possible use of ODA to support domestic commercial interests; insufficient safeguards on the social and environmental impact of activities; and issues around the transparency of private sector partnerships.
Perhaps the most controversial story in European development aid today is the question of migration. The EU struggled to respond to large numbers of refugees and “irregular” migrants — mostly arriving by boat across the Mediterranean — amid the greatest displacement crisis since World War Two. A million new arrivals landed in the EU during 2015 alone, to a mixed political and public response.
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Following a summit on the issue in late 2015, EU leaders established the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, a development instrument with the goal of tackling the causes and consequences of migration, to which 2.6 billion euros ($2.9 billion) have so far been pledged.
Since then, migration has become a regular feature of EU development programming — a policy fiercely resisted by many NGOs, who worry about the securitization of development; the prioritization of domestic over development objectives; and the human rights implications. The EU’s new development framework, the Consensus on Development — which will be officially signed on the opening day of the EDD — has been highly controversial, in large part because of its references to migration. With talks on a revised partnership agreement between the EU and the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific due to start next year, the debate will only continue.
The European Development Days are not avoiding the subject: Migration is prominent on the summit’s agenda, including a high-level panel on the “migration-development nexus.” Stakeholders will be carefully watching how the discussion unfolds.
Climate change and women’s rights
After the US president decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change last week, many are wondering if Europe, alongside China, can provide the leadership to fill the gap. Some European leaders reacted quickly to the announcement — with Germany, France and Italy issuing a joint statement asserting that the agreement is “irreversible” — and the EU’s new Consensus on Development has been praised for committing to coordinate development policy with the Paris accord.
“Sustainable energy and climate action” is one of 16 focus areas at the summit, with the program highlighting universal access to clean and affordable energy as a particular priority, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Among 19 events and stands on this theme is a key session on scaling-up opportunities for climate change mitigation and adaptation at the urban level. Recent developments in the U.S. are sure to intensify attention on the issue at the two-day summit.
The same is true of women’s rights — another focus area of the EDD. European leaders responded strongly to President Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the “global gag rule” earlier this year. With the London Summit on Family Planning coming up next month — and questions also arising about the protection of girls’ education programs — discussions will center on how to safeguard investment in gender equality and women’s empowerment going forward.
Smaller NGOs, as well as those in the humanitarian sector, are likely to be the biggest losers if U.K. nonprofits lose their eligibility for EU funds, a new study by Bond predicts.
Finally, while there will be no formal debates on the U.K.’s exit from the EU at the EDD, it will be a difficult subject to avoid. The U.K. is traditionally a European leader on global development, although Germany has recently overtaken it in terms of net contributions to ODA. It is currently one of only six countries to be meeting the United Nations target of spending 0.7 percent of gross national income on ODA, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
With a snap election taking place in the U.K. on the final day of the EDD, the impact of Brexit on European aid remains unclear, and is likely to be a key topic on the sidelines of the conference.
Bond, the U.K. NGO network, estimates that British charities could miss out on up to 140 million euros ($158 million) of EU funding a year as a result of Brexit — a major concern for many smaller organizations reliant on EU contracts — but the analysis doesn’t take into account U.K. contributions to the European aid budget, nor its voluntary contributions to the European Development Fund. There are questions, too, over how the loss of U.K. leadership as well as finance might affect the shape of EU aid.