Top EU official offers clues on next programming cycle

Koen Doens, director-general at DEVCO. Photo by: Friends of Europe / CC BY-NC-ND

BRUSSELS — The head of the European Commission’s development department wants to end the “artificial” separation between its priorities in aid-receiving countries, and says that doing “more on fewer things” may be the best way forward.

The European Union will soon enter talks with governments around the world to decide which areas, such as health, education, and good governance, to work on for the 2021-2027 period.

Currently, each national and regional indicative program sets out three focal sectors for EU aid — down from what was once 10, Koen Doens, director-general at DEVCO, told a Devex Pro event Wednesday. “But still the three have shown to be sometimes … a bit artificial,” he said. “They draw our mind away from the coherent packages where linkages are seen.”

Given the need to “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic, Doens said environmental issues, digitalization, social inclusion, education and health should be linked. “We need to design, with partners, things where all this blends and where it mutually reinforces each other,” he said. “I would want to take us out of let’s say the strictly siloed three focal sectors.”

“We still sometimes have a tendency of doing a lot of things in a lot of countries, sometimes in homeopathic doses.”

— Koen Doens, director-general at DEVCO

That said, Doens explained that the commission is not planning major changes to the existing model. “The future will look very similar as [to] what we have now, which is we will work with partners on a document that captures these strategic priorities, which we set together for the next seven years,” he said.

Rather, the aim is to select policies that “mutually reinforce each other,” he said. “If you want to do sustainable agriculture you need energy, you need energy for the water. Can we build the links between such priorities? There I think we have [a] margin of improvement.”

A report by the European Court of Auditors on EU aid to Kenya, released Tuesday, found it was not clear why funds were channeled to various aspects of food security, sustainable infrastructure, and accountability of public institutions, rather than ICT and manufacturing, for instance. And the auditors found that “spreading Kenya’s funding over so many areas increases the risk of it not reaching the necessary critical mass in any single sector to achieve significant results.”

Responding to the report during Wednesday’s discussion, Doens said: “Since there are so many things that are so important, we still sometimes have a tendency of doing a lot of things in a lot of countries, sometimes in homeopathic doses. 

“That doesn’t mean that what we do is not worthwhile [and] doesn’t generate impact. But it does mean that I sometimes wonder if we were to maybe do more on fewer things, or, even better, if we could see the linkages between what we do, then we would make a qualitative step in the right direction.”

The European Parliament’s development committee is due to discuss the EU’s next programming cycle with the commission and the bloc’s foreign service at a hearing Thursday afternoon.

About the author

  • 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.