EU eyes ‘aid exit’ for Africa’s champions

A school in Burkina Faso

Africa still needs massive international development assistance but it also has its success stories, with countries such as Ghana heading towards a possible ‘aid exit’, European Commission officials have told EURACTIV.

Commission documents seen by EURACTIV reveal differences on the impact of development aid in sub-Saharan African countries.

It looks, however, that “success stories” begin to emerge.

Among the key indicators measuring progress in development are the percentages of children attending primary school, child mortality, the number of births attended by skilled health staff, the number of people vaccinated against measles and the number of people living under poverty line.

But despite the poverty-fighting benchmarks set by the UN Millennium Development Goals, reliable statistics are not always available in all countries to allow comparison.

Erica Gerretsen, in charge of Western Africa at the Commission’s directorate for development and cooperation (Devco), told EURACTIV that while the situation remains difficult overall on the African continent, the  perspective of an 'aid exit' was getting closer in some countries. 

Some data reveal obvious successes. In Ghana the percentage of children attending primary school is close to 100%. In 2009, more than a million children in the West African country of 24 million didn’t attend school. In Burkina Faso, the number of girls attending school rose from 61% to 75% between 2007 and 2010 and the proportion of children completing primary school rose from 36% to 52%. 

Local ownership

“What is important is the local ownership of aid projects. Aid concepts ‘imported’ from Europe may have an effect on the short term, but are rarely effective in a longer perspective,” Gerretsen said.

According to Commission officials, the key element of success is good governance and political stability, including successful economic and financial governance, in which the private sector feels comfortable and doesn’t fear abuse or corruption.

“It is not possible to develop a company, or an agricultural producer cannot develop his activity in a healthy manner, if he is not sure that he effectively owns his land,” Gerretsen said.

The EU provides help both in terms of building infrastructure such as courthouses, but also in training jurists and administrators.

Gerretsen singled out Ghana as a good example of a country taking ownership of development projects.

“The Commission starts to think about an 'exit strategy', about the time when the authorities of Ghana would tell Brussels: 'Thank you very much, but it is no longer necessary that you bring assistance under the form of projects or budget support',” she said.

Fair distribution of national resources

Aside from budget support (see background), an additional effort is made for making sure that the country’s own economic and financial resources are distributed.

Ghana has become an oil producer in the last couple of years, but negative examples of other countries such as Nigeria show that the oil resources are not sufficient for escaping from the grip of poverty.

“The interest for us is to make sure that the oil revenue is properly directed toward the poorest. Ghana is not perfect, there are improvements to be made in the field of governance and in combating corruption, but it the field of development Ghana is giving us a lot of satisfaction,” Gerretsen said.

Commission data show that Ghana has been successful in fighting illegal logging and has benefited from a European action plan called FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade). This plan provides a number of measures to exclude illegal timber from markets, improve the supply of legal timber and increase the demand for responsible wood products.

It has also made headway in water supply and sanitation, which brought clean water to a population of 267,000 in the period 2007-2011, contributing to a 90% reduction of guinea worm cases and a 40% reduction in the reported cases of diarrheal disease among children under five.

Donor darling

Besides Ghana, Burkina Faso is a country that has “totally subscribed” to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, and as a result has become a “donor’s darling”, Gerretsen continued.

The country of 17 million people receives aid under the EU’s 10th European Development Fund in the amount of €708 million for the 2007-2013 period, a sum which she said was “pretty huge”. In comparison, EU funding for Ghana amounts to €455 million for the same period.

The EU has invested heavily in basic infrastructure in Burkina Faso, such as roads, facilitating an uptake of trade.

Clean water is another major component of the EU support to Burkina Faso. Between 2009 and 2010, EU-financed programmes contributed to provide water to more than 500,000 people, Commission documents show. The EU has also made important contributions to poverty-reduction programmes.

Omer Kaboré, country director of Oxfam in Burkina Faso, told EURACTIV in a telephone interview that the positive aspect of the EU as a donor is that their presence in the field makes them “very well informed about the reality, and very flexible and adaptable to the changes in context”.

This is essential in countries like Burkina Faso, where external shocks can easily jeopardise the implementation of a project, Kaboré said, expressing concern about the destabilisation potential of neighbouring Mali.

Ethiopia is another country where EU development aid has contributed to poverty reduction and progress in attaining the Millennium Development Goals, officials say.

The percentage of people living below the poverty line has declined, from almost 40% to 20% between 2005 and 2011. Over the same period, primary school enrolment rose from 70% to 85%, and access to drinking water increased from around 50% to 80%.

One of the Commission's most touted success stories is its Productive Safety Net Programme, which provides cash or food transfers to about 7.5 million of the most vulnerable Ethiopians. In return, the beneficiaries engage in public works activities or get professional training. The multi-donor Promoting Basic Services programme allowed the hiring of more than 100,000 additional primary school teachers, and a significant number of health workers.

The EU also boasts itself as the only grant donor to Ethiopia’s road sector. As a result, the road network has expanded significantly, with a large part of the works completed by local contractors.

Despite a changing political environment, the EU has been able to preserve its relationship with Ethiopian civil society. The EU Civil Society fund is the only external fund that enables local civil society organisations to engage in governance and development activities.

Success is fragile

But Oxfam's Kaboré warned that foreign experts should not “fool themselves” with positive aid numbers.

“When we talk about achieving great success on people’s access to education, we need to be sure that success in quantity is followed by a better quality on education," he said. "To say it in a simple way, it is not a success to have thousands more students at school if teachers are absent or classes too overcrowded." 

"The same happens with water access. Many water points, which have been installed without the community involvement in water chain management for sustainability, are broken down,” Kaboré said.

Asked if he subscribed to the view that Burkina Faso was heading toward ‘aid exit’, Kaboré clearly indicated that he saw such views as over-optimistic.

“It’s difficult to imagine it in the short term”, he said.

Moreover, cuts in aid budgets due to the eurozone crisis may undermine past achievements, Kaboré warned. “We can understand that Europe is having internal priorities but we need to tell them not to turn their back to Africa and forget all the efforts that have been done for the last years to help underdeveloped countries go out of their poverty,” he said.

‘Countries returning from far’

Along with the aid champions, there appears to be a category of countries ‘returning from far’ – those that have improved a lot despite a situation which was seen as desperate only recently.

One such country is Liberia, which has been prey to civil wars from the 1980s that killed approximately 250,000 people and devastated its economy. Since the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 as president, the country has greatly improved and statehood was re-introduced.

Sirleaf is the first female head of state in Africa and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

In Niger and Togo, political progress has allowed the Commission to start important development projects. 

The EU is present everywhere in Africa with delegations and projects in all countries, expect Equatorial Guinea, which hasn’t signed and ratified the Cotonou Agreement. The EU assistance is fully integrated into the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

The assistance to economic and financial governance takes place under the tenth European Development Fund (EDF), the main instrument for providing Community aid for development cooperation in the period 2008-2013.

In general, two types of aid are provided via EU funding:

  • Projects, which have a high level of visibility and often allow a flag to be planted on their location.
  • Budget support, which is seen as contributing to the “local ownership” of development projects.

The Commission says it has leverage in strengthening governance. The most visible one appears to be the support given for organising elections, but others inclue assistance provided to civil society organisations strengthening the capacity of political parties.

The functioning judiciary and transparent land ownership legislation are also seen as key areas of support.

EU institutions:

International organisations:


  • Institut national de la statistique et la démographie, Burkina Faso : Statistics
  • Central Statistical Agency, Ethiopia : Statistics


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