Don’t forget local authorities in EU-Africa relations

Africa’s version of the 'Kissinger question', which originally referred to who should be the United States’ first contact in Europe, is one of the issues which remains open as the EU and African leaders seek to develop a so called ‘strategic partnership’. [EPA-EFE/STR]

As the EU and African Union seek to make up for the time lost in 2020 by accelerating talks on a new ‘strategic partnership’ covering political and economic cooperation, one of the risks is that the high-level political talks take place in a vacuum, with little regard for local communities.

African civil society activists already complain that they have been left out of the consultation process thus far.

“The relationship between civil society and government is very difficult,” Million Belay, co-ordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, told EURACTIV. “I don’t expect African countries to be consulting with civil society organisations.”

Lungisa Huna, director of the pan-African Rural Women’s Assembly, said that “we as the civil society – church and grassroots movements – need to build from below”. “We need to have our people well-capacitated and with a voice to make change happen,” she added.

Local and regional authorities undoubtedly face major difficulties in obtaining dialogue with central governments in a number of African states, where tensions can arise when it comes to the transfer of resources.

Cooperation between the European Commission and local authorities across Africa is set to increase under the EU’s new seven-year budget framework which, for the first time, will see local authorities participate in the process as public actors alongside the central state to define the priorities of European cooperation projects and programs.

Another change under the new 2021-2027 budget is that the new EU cooperation instrument (NDICI) does not include a thematic envelope dedicated to local authorities, with the EU now including local authorities in the definition and implementation of all its priority headings.

However, that puts the onus on local and regional governments to demonstrate their ability to do planning and programming properly, otherwise, they risk being overlooked.

In addition to constant dialogue with their national governments, the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa), an umbrella organisation for the continent’s local officials, has urged its members to negotiate agreements with the national EU delegation in their country and seek to influence the Commission’s Development Cooperation Directorate General (DG DEVCO) work on the integration of local authorities in European cooperation.

UCLG Africa will also seek talks with national African governments and EU delegations on funding mechanisms guaranteeing direct access for local authorities to European cooperation funds.

“The central state must know that it has a new ally, the local and regional authorities, to improve the lives of its citizens,” said Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi, secretary-general of UCLG Africa.

A group of countries including Mali, Comoros, Zambia, Mozambique, Mauritania, Benin and Burkina Faso have already opened talks with their respective EU delegations.

Localism and the specific needs of individual communities should not be left out, the campaign organisation states.

Elsewhere, there are concerns that the EU does not seem to consider the specificity of the decentralisation process in each of the countries and the inequalities of the territories.

“The struggle for decentralisation is not easy. It is a permanent struggle to make it a success and it must be conducted in such a way as to avoid breakdowns. Partnership with the EU is important for the success of decentralisation,” Mohamed Boudra, president of the Moroccan Association of Presidents of Communal Councils, told a UCLG Africa webinar last year.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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