Q&A: EU development chief on the challenges of uniting Europe around aid

Stefano Manservisi, director-general of international development for the European Commission. Photo by: Friends of Europe / CC BY-NC-ND

WHISTLER, Canada — G-7 development ministers gathered in Whistler, Canada before last week’s leaders’ summit for meetings centered around women’s economic empowerment, including hearing from young women leaders on policies governments must pursue if they want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

The G-7 is made up of seven of the most advanced economies in the world: The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, and Japan — and the European Union is also represented. Stefano Manservisi, director-general of international cooperation and development for the European Commission, sat in on the meetings, as well as on joint sessions held with G-7 finance ministers on how to make the global economy work for everyone.

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Since the "migrant crisis" reached a peak in 2015, Europe has increasingly absorbed the issue of migration into its development policy — sparking deep controversy among NGOs. But what does it mean to tackle migration through aid, and how much money is being redirected for this purpose? Devex investigates.

Devex sat down with Manservisi in Whistler to discuss challenges he faces in uniting an increasingly fractured and populist Europe around a development policy that enhances European security while helping the world’s poorest. He explained why open but managed borders are the key to Europe’s future, and how achieving the SDGs requires cooperation between public and private investment.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you prioritize your development agenda across the diverse membership of the European Union?

The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs are representative of the weaknesses and the opportunities of globalization, which means they require by definition, a holistic and integrated approach. You cannot take them as the old Millennium Development Goals, which were very much sectorial. The SDGs are obliging us to work in an integrated way and not in silos. In doing this, what we highlight — more than sectorial priorities — are output objectives, the first of which is peace. Development should contribute to a peaceful world, because no peace, no development, and vice versa.

The second is to take care of our planet: Climate change, biodiversity, different ways of producing and consuming, ocean governance.

Third is development policy, contributing to sustainable growth and job creation. Job creation and economic growth is not the only way to measure development, but it is certainly fundamental in order to create opportunity for people — particularly for young people.

"The challenges are no longer those of the poor which can be addressed by the money of the rich ... We are all in the same boat."

— Stefano Manservisi, director-general of international cooperation and development for the European Commission

We have therefore developed an approach that is concentrating our policy, political, and financial efforts on the poorest — in particular the most vulnerable small islands. But we have also developed an approach for the middle-income countries, under the objective of “development in transition.” The capability of many middle-income countries to deal with shocks remains quite weak, and therefore our policy also addresses some countries that are quite developed.

It is not easy to get out of poverty, but it is easy to fall back into it if development is not underpinned by solid public policies and better connection of national resources.

What does the rise of populism mean for the EU’s development policy?

The 2030 Agenda, and therefore any development policy, suggests the challenges are no longer those of the poor which can be addressed by the money of the rich. This is basically setting aside the old relationships of donors and beneficiaries. We are all in the same boat. Poverty cannot be eradicated just in one part of the world without also seriously reforming the policies that are developed in countries in Europe, the United States, and everywhere. If we turn and look only to ourselves, we simply fail.

Another aspect is about migration and mobility. You know that in Europe we have a problem with this. Migration is a global phenomenon. Mobility is a global phenomenon. Solutions can be found only by making regular [or documented] migration affordable, well-regulated, well-managed and also by being very firm on irregular [or undocumented] migration because this very often turns into tragedy. As the European Union, we are telling member states “you cannot believe closing the border is the solution.” Our existence as the European Union, in terms of economy and freedom, is based on opening borders but managing them.

How does the diversity of opinion in the EU with regard to migration impact your development policy?

The vast majority of Europeans are in favor of more development policy to address migration-related issues. On the other hand, big numbers in European societies are extremely reticent to be positive vis-a-vis migration. The two things must be seen together because there is a concrete space to demonstrate to Europeans that development policy can be helpful.

We organize our actions in this area around three axes. The most classic one is the root causes of migration, which in the case of irregular migration, is largely due to push factors such as poverty, poor access to democracy, and now climate change. Therefore we can address this by intervening to help create jobs, economic activity, and access to services.

With regards to migration, we need "to accept the challenge of development policy in addressing short-term needs, not only the classical long-term."

The second component of our action is to accept the challenge of development policy in addressing short-term needs, not only the classical long-term. That means helping countries of origin and transit fight traffickers, and to manage borders in a way that is more effective and friendlier toward fundamental rights. For example, that might include training border guards with a development approach because it allows efficiency and more respect. Sometimes the border guards don’t differentiate between trafficker and migrant.

The third is to be effective in reintegrating migrants in their communities of origin when they have been intercepted in their path toward Libya [a key entry point into Europe via the Mediterranean], or have been found irregular in the European Union and are returned. It is contributing to public opinion to look at it in a more managed way, and in a less immediate, ideological or populistic way.

The U.S. has been outspoken about other countries paying their fair share for development. What does this mean for the EU?

Global problem, global solution, which means mobilizing money accordingly. It’s not just public money — it’s not just a question of how to redistribute public money, or who will pay more. It’s a question of how to change and involve private investment. Investments are now playing a central role in policy setting. The scale of the problem is huge and therefore needs so much money that it’s inconceivable that only public money can do the trick. In addition, the nature of the challenge requires the involvement of private actors.

There is ample space to work with the private sector, which is looking for business and profit, and to identify together profit that is contributing to sustainable economic activity in this world. Public money could be useful to help with this, not in terms of subsidies, but in terms of contributing to a better business environment in developing countries, in supplying technical assistance. It could be an impact assessment study, it could be a viability study, it could be building capacities in the administration of developing countries to interact with private business.

How can that be leveraged in terms of women’s economic empowerment?

Women are key to creating sustainable growth … but we need to have the data, the evidence, to be able to target them.

Education is an investment in young girls — making sure they remain in school is an investment in our present and our future. Having access to all the steps of education is crucial. This can be addressed with a mix of interventions — projects, programs, and a lot of dialogue. These young women are protagonists if they are given the space, the safety, and the capacity to project themselves.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.