EU divided over ‘conditionality’ of aid

A farmer in northern Rwanda. [CIAT/Flickr]

Belgium has suspended part of its aid programme to Rwanda in response to the country’s poor human rights record. The conditionality of aid is a subject of disagreement among European countries. EURACTIV France reports

The question of whether to give without expecting anything in return has become a major headache for the European Union, the world’s biggest donor of development aid.

Belgium’s Minister for Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo announced his intention earlier this month to place stricter conditions on assistance to developing countries, following his government’s decision to suspend part of its aid to Rwanda.

Belgium decided to withhold €40 million of aid after deciding the Rwandan government had failed to meet some of its commitments in the domains of political transparency, good governance and freedom of the press. The aid was conditional on those commitments.

In Belgium the attachment of such conditions to aid payments is seen as a way to exercise leverage on human rights matters, while in other European countries, particularly in France, it is perceived as counter-productive.

Doubly punitive measures

“Aid conditionality has a doubly punitive effect on the poorest populations,” a source in the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs told “If a country does not respect human rights, and this leads to the suspension of public development aid, it is systematically the fragile populations that suffer as a direct result”.

For France, it is exceptional to take disciplinary measures involving public aid, and they can only take place “in the case of a coup d’état or an illegitimate government”. In such a case, France would “suspend its financial aid to the state,” but maintain its humanitarian aid commitments, as well as keeping open the channels to civil society and NGOs.

The coup d’état in Mali in March 2012 led France to suspend its budgetary aid for almost a year, without cutting its humanitarian aid.

>> Read: French website sheds light on development aid to Mali

European disagreement

European relations with the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP) that receive public development aid are regulated by the Cotonou Partnership Agreement.

In return for European Union aid, the ACP countries must respect a series of political, technical and democratic conditions defined by the agreement. This provides a framework for both partners regarding the respect of fundamental rights, and prescribes a consultation period of up to two months when these rights are breached.

Article 97 of the agreement states that if the consultations fail, or in “serious cases,” donor countries can take “appropriate measures” to remedy the situation. That may include the suspension of payments.

In practice, the EU will only cut its financial ties with ACP countries in response to a breakdown of the democratic order. Such “serious cases” included the 2009 coup d’état in Madagascar, as well as similar situations in Zimbabwe, Togo and Guinea-Bissau.

>> Read: EU paves way for resuming direct aid to Zimbabwe

Tiptoeing around the issue of LGBT rights

There still appear to be a certain number of taboo subjects in the political dialogue between the EU and the ACP countries. If human rights, democratic principles, the rule of law and gender equality feature in the Cotonou agreement, the rights of sexual minorities remain conspicuously unaddressed.

A source from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “On the subject of homosexuality, we run the risk of giving the impression that European countries are trying to impose their values on certain countries”.

Homosexuality is still a criminal offence in 76 countries, 38 of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to a report by Amnesty International, it is punishable by death in five countries.

In early 2014, Uganda caused uproar in Europe by hardening its stance on homosexuality. The Netherlands and Denmark suspended their bilateral aid programmes, but at the European Council in Brussels, the member states were unable to agree on a joint response.

>> Read: Anti-gay laws in Africa tarnish Europe relations

The European Union is the world's number one donor of humanitarian and development aid. Member states are trying to limit their annual contributions to the EU in the face of internal budgetary restrictions.

The European Union and the individual member states have developed various approaches to the delivery of aid, in an attempt to insure the efficient spending of public money.

The conditions upon which the aid depends varies from state to state. 

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