Time for the EU to lay its cards on the table

A child flies a kite during playtime at the mental health center in Azraq Camp, Syria, funded by the European Commission. True commitment is prioritizing aid to the least developed countries to meet global anti-poverty goals. Photo by: Josh Harris / International Medical Corps UK / European Commission / CC BY-ND 

For six months we’ve been saying “this is an important year for development” because of the big international summits that will decide on the future of our planet and how we’ll pay to get there.

Well, now one such summit is just three weeks away, and for us, as development practitioners, these next few weeks are crunch time. The third Financing for Development summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July is the key moment where all countries’ true commitment to the fight against extreme poverty will be revealed. The cards will be played and the bluffs called.

So what, then, are the cards that the most powerful donor in the world holds to its chest?

Last month, European Union development ministers reaffirmed their long-standing and unmet promise to collectively spend 0.7 percent of national income on development assistance. Of that, they agreed to spend 0.2 percent of national income on aid to the poorest countries. In both cases the timeline is a vague “within the time frame of the post-2015 agenda.”

Let’s be clear: While achieving this target would lead to an absolute increase in aid, the share of aid going to the poorest countries could in fact decrease. Just picture a cake: As the overall cake gets bigger, the slice intended for the poorest countries could become relatively smaller. The 19 EU member states for whom we have data on aid to the least developed countries in 2014 currently spend only 29 percent of aid on those countries. Based on growth projections of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, this could go down to just over 28 percent by 2030.  

So when it comes to aid commitments, the EU’s cards are not exactly a pair of aces to slam down on the table.

Already in the game was a target of directing 50 percent of aid towards LDCs. Instead of encouraging a race to the top, the EU delegation and some member states have been trying to water down this more ambitious target in order to bring the text in line with their own position.

In short, this is not the EU we are used to seeing. But three weeks is a long time in politics and we can still pull this back from the brink. How? Leaders in particular will be critical — and the 28 EU heads of state and government are meeting this week. Here, at the European Council, they have the authority to add to the agreement the development ministers brokered last month, and to announce a new, more ambitious aid commitment that would deliver the leverage needed to get others to follow suit.

European leaders should agree to collectively spend half of aid on LDCs by 2020. After all, we know that in these countries bigger swaths of the population live in extreme poverty, extreme poverty is deeper, and the extreme poor already receive less aid per capita than in other developing countries. In 2030, half of the extreme poor will be living in these countries, but aid to these countries has been in systemic decline in recent years, despite increasing global aid.

Leaders must reverse this trend by prioritizing and frontloading aid to the poorest countries. Only this will give these countries a fair shot at meeting the new global anti-poverty goals in time for the 2030 deadline.

Credibly demonstrating political will in this way is a first step. Next, the leaders should keep their weight behind the negotiations, as discussions are expected to go down to the wire in Addis Ababa. It will be an important signal for European delegations to be headed by prime ministers and presidents. After all, the talks touch upon issues that go well beyond aid and the traditional development ministers’ portfolios. And rightly so, since there are many other ways to unlock financing for development.

Success or failure of the Addis Ababa summit will also depend on whether we can mobilize those other sources of financing and eventually reduce dependency on aid; on whether enough of that financing — both domestic and international — is spent on developing countries’ own plans to deliver a basic package of services for their citizens, such as health and education, which will help achieve the goal to end extreme poverty by 2030; and on whether we collect sufficient data to be able to map where the poor live and what their needs are, as well as to track our progress.

The stakes really are incredibly high, and that is why this year development deserves to be on the EU summit’s agenda right up there with migration and security challenges.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Tamira Gunzburg

    Tamira Gunzburg is the director of ONE's Brussels office. She has been with the ONE Campaign since 2011, and works on a range of policy issues including transparency and accountability, development assistance, agriculture, and health. Before joining ONE, Tamira worked as an advocacy officer for a Belgian development NGO, on natural resource management in Central Africa. She also worked as a trainee at EuropeAid and at Save the Children’s EU office. Tamira is Belgian-South African and has a degree in economics from Wellesley College in Boston, USA.

Join the Discussion