After Brexit, Europe must take the lead on development aid

Making dirt biscuits in Haiti. Many Haitians flee desperate poverty to French Guiana. [Feed My Starving Children/Flickr]

The loss of the United Kingdom, one of Europe’s biggest aid donors, will force the EU to strengthen its development action. But the election of Emmanuel Macron in France could give development policy a much-needed boost, Rémy Rioux said in an interview with EURACTIV France.

Rémy Rioux is the director general of the French Development Agency. He previously held the position of deputy secretary general of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Laurent Fabius.

Since the French elections, we have seen Emmanuel Macron position himself as a leader on subjects like climate change. Could we also see him taking the initiative on development?

No decision has yet been made. The president has only just arrived, his government has just been nominated and the legislative elections will likely hand him a parliamentary majority.

But it is clear that the president has been elected on a mandate to open France up to the world, a very pro-European mandate. From this point of view, this was probably the clearest presidential election in a long time. Macron’s mandate will have consequences for his ability to take the initiative. I think that will also be expressed – and we will see in what form – in the domain of development, which along with defence and diplomacy forms one of the three pillars of a state’s external action.

What is the role of the French Development Agency (AFD) and its partnership with the Caisse des Dépôts?

The French Development Agency is the world’s oldest development institution, created in the London smog in 1941 by General de Gaulle.  At the time it was the ‘Central Cashier of Free France’, the financial instrument of the resistance. Progressively it turned into a development bank. We implement France’s development policy around the whole world.

Last year, we joined forces with the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, France’s national development bank. We have the same mission, both institutions concentrate on long-term investments that involve local authorities and actors that serve the major national and international political priorities. The Caisse des Dépôts does this in France and the AFD around the world. This rapprochement is the direct consequence of the new international Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda, concluded in 2015.

What the SDGs say – and this is profoundly revolutionary – is that we share the same programme, France, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, everyone shares the same objectives. The logic of today’s development policy has moved on from just “I will provide you with money and skills because I am strong and generous”, to “we have the same objective and we will open a dialogue on our respective development policies: development in France and development in Burkina Faso”. So we need a financial institution by our side which knows what has worked and what has not worked in France, to exchange expertise.

Erna Solberg, the Norwegian prime minister, said, “We are all developing countries but at different stages.”

Exactly. We may not be starting from the same point but we share the same challenges. Here too, turning to one’s own country, understanding its history, the way it has developed, is a reference point that helps us to gain an intelligent understanding of other countries’ logics. There is no single solution or miracle sector. It is because we understand our own future that we understand the journey taken by others and this puts us in a position to be able to help others, if they want it, and as the most respectful of partners.

Brexit means the EU will lose one of its biggest development champions. Will that push France to do more?

Of course. You have to remember that the EU is the most generous donor of official development assistance, providing almost half of all aid globally. This is also a region where actors are highly interconnected. More and more, we are developing what I call a “development aid system” with the European Commission at its centre.

This still only accounts for 10 percent of its resources but European aid is increasingly becoming a lever, in cooperation with the agencies from the member states, boosting our financial, technical and diplomatic capabilities to strengthen the coherence and efficiency of our action.

Obviously, the departure of the Brits is bad news because they have been the leaders on this policy for the last 15 years, since Tony Blair. We have to hope they will remain highly mobilised, like the government promised, and keep ties with us as close as possible. And continental Europe has to take over the burden. Our German colleagues show us the way: they reached the mythical threshold of allocating 0.7 percent of GNI to development in 2016. France is now heading in the right direction. We are currently at 0.38 percent but all the decisions that have been made will gradually increase this. And Macron promised to increase aid spending during the election campaign.

The world is increasingly being affected by the migration crisis. There are French territories – I am thinking particularly of Mayotte and French Guyana – that are very exposed to migration. What targeted action are France and the AFD taking in these cases?

Migration is obviously a major subject that we have to manage in the most effective and humane way possible. As a development aid institution, we are one part of the answer.

It is important to think on the right geographical scale. Of course, there are countries of origin, which have to be developed as much as possible by providing their inhabitants with opportunities. There are also host countries, the European countries where, with the help of organisations like the Caisse des Dépôts in France, responses have to be put in place. And we must not forget the countries that I would not call “transit countries” but countries of “first destination”.

We know, for example, that migrants from the Sahel travel primarily to the South, not the North. Speak to the presidents of Ivory Coast, Nigeria, South Africa, and they will tell you to invest in their countries because they are the ones that take in migrants, offer them work, social security, community. This is interesting because in these countries the international community has powerful tools and can really do things. We must not think in a binary way because the issue us more complex than that.

To answer your question on France’s overseas territories, it is indeed true that the AFD is present in the overseas departments and territories.

We have an agency in Mayotte and one in the Comoros islands. One in Guyana and one in Haiti. Many Haitians are travelling to Guyana at the moment. So we are trying to combine our actions in the host territories and the territories of origin, and I hope we will do so more and more and with greater efficiency in the future, to try and find solutions to balance the situations that sometimes place our territories under great strain, like what is happening in Mayotte and Comores at the moment.

What do you think of the NGOs’ criticism that money destined for development is being siphoned off to try and solve the migration crisis?

People do not leave their countries by choice, they do so out of necessity, either because of war or the climate or because they are looking for a better life for their family. This cannot be dissociated from development. We have to involve the private sector, try to develop job creation in the countries of origin, in destination countries, bring water and sanitation, education. All these efforts will create an environment where people have a certain equality of opportunity. An environment that will allow people to choose whether to stay or move on. There will always be mobility, and this is a response to economic and social needs that should be taken into account. So I do not see any opposition between that and the question of development.

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