Impoverished people in India, Brazil and other emerging countries could be left in the lurch under EU plans to redirect development assistance to the world’s neediest nations, aid and rights activists say.

While charity and human rights groups welcome Europe's continued commitment to developing countries, they fear draft EU proposals could harm efforts to finance water, sanitation and other projects in Latin America, Asia and possibly some sub-Saharan African countries.

Catarina de Albuquerque is the UN’s first special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and she says the EU’s ‘Agenda for Change’ - which calls for revamping foreign aid - “can be detrimental for the progress of rights” if it leaves some poor communities vulnerable.

“I’m not saying the intentions are bad, I’m saying the outcomes are bad,” the Portuguese lawyer told EurActiv, saying the EU proposals could harm needy communities of Latin America, a region that has made steady development progress but still has pockets of poverty.

Faced with water scarcity, devastating droughts and growing food needs, many emerging economies are struggling to provide secure water supplies. Some one billion people lack potable water, and more than two billion people live in areas faced with scarcity, UN and EU officials say.

Rights and charity campaigners wary of the EU’s aid proposals say these people need help wherever they live.

Piebalgs plan

Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs in October unveiled plans to overhaul overseas development assistance to better help in the poorest and most vulnerable countries, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

Foreign and development ministers from the 27 EU countries acknowledged in May 2011 that water is a critical area because scarcity affects food and energy production and contributes to a range of health problems.

Draft Council conclusions to be presented under the current Danish EU presidency endorse plans to re-direct aid from middle-income countries to address water and other human needs. “Particular emphasis will be on supporting development in Europe’s neighbourhood and in sub-Saharan Africa,” says the 8 February draft.

EU aid for water and sanitation hit a record €1.6 billion in 2009, the latest EU figures available, nearly one-third of global annual development aid for the sector. The European Commission pledged an additional €700 million for water and other development targets to the poorest countries in December.

Agenda for Change would give more attention to the poorest countries as well as the former Soviet countries on the EU's Eastern flank – reflecting a policy priority of Poland, which held the rotating EU presidency when the aid proposal was unveiled.

But in doing so, emerging countries like India and Brazil could see the gradual loss of development assistance, nations with robust economies but serious poverty.

In India, 27% of people are impoverished and nearly half of the country’s poor people have no modern sanitation, according to the 2011 UN Human Development Report. In several middle-income South American and Asian countries that could see aid levels fall, poor water and sanitation compound poverty in urban ghettoes and rural communities.

A drop here, a bucket there

Natalia Alonso, head of EU advocacy office for Oxfam International, says the charity group welcomes the EU’s desire to focus on the neediest countries. But she said Europe should not stop working with other countries based on economic rankings that are based on averages.

The EU needs a “joint strategy” to help nations address inequalities, Alonso said in an interview. “We don’t just think that withdrawing suddenly from these countries is a positive move.”

Other charity groups also question parts of the Agenda for Change.

The EU plan “does not take into consideration the fact that 75% of the world’s poorest live in those middle-income countries,” the Brussels-based Concord confederation of relief and development organisations says in a review of the EuropeAid proposals.

If donors are “serious about reducing and eradicating poverty,” Concord says, they need to ensure that aid “reaches the poorest and most marginalised groups of the population, regardless of the country the live in.”

De Albuquerque, the UN’s water rights rapporteur, also says she understands the EU’s goal of providing more aid in countries with the greatest need.

“But we cannot simply withdraw from other countries, like in Latin America,” she said, “because there are still people – and a significant number of people – living in poverty and our objective, not only in Latin America, should be to make sure that the governments are held [accountable] and empowered to help them.”