Donor darlings are political, not scientific

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest levels of infant mortality caused by unhealthy environments. [Flickr/Julien Harneis]

The €55 billion a year of European money going to development is politically motivated rather than scientifically. Formal colonies, trade partners and media-favorites become ‘donor darlings’. Some poor countries are bearing the brunt, writes Kasper C. Goethals.

Kasper C. Goethals is a Belgian journalist and chief editor of Europe’s Footsteps, a journalism project covering issues related to Europe’s place ‘in a struggling world’.

Every country has different priorities. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, are exploring ways to link aid to its own commercial interest. “The Ministry of Aid and Trade are merged into one in the Netherlands. That says a lot,” says Jeroen Kwakkenbos, policy and advocacy manager at Eurodad. For other countries like France, historical and even linguistic favouritism occurs. French is – almost shockingly so – an official language in most of its 16 priority partners.

Another tendency is herding behaviour. European member states pick their beneficiary countries based on those other member states picked. “They are risk averse,” says Kwakkenbos. For example, as a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows, Finland has six of its priority countries in common with Denmark and five of them are also a priority for Sweden. This occurs more often with neighbouring member states. Ireland in that spirit, shares seven of its nine priority countries with the United Kingdom. This creates donor darlings.

This way two countries in the same economic group, like Mozambique and Chad that both classify as least developed countries (LDCs), get different levels of support. Everybody’s friend Mozambique receives aid from 16 different donors, Chad only from two. “Some receive little help, others get substantially more. Donor coordination is a huge problem,” Kwakkenbos explains.

“On paper, EU aid allocation corresponds to an objective assessment of need. In the past, it was the result of protracted political negotiations in which each member state had its own vested interest. This is perhaps less so today, nevertheless political interests may still be accommodated in the allocation model,” says Mikaela Gavas, who is an EU development cooperation specialist for the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a leading UK think tank on international development.

It is important not to forget that in 1962 – only a little over 50 years ago – the Democratic Republic of the Congo was still called the Belgian Congo. After a tumultuous decolonisation process, development aid to former colonies was a precarious subject for European countries. “In the 60s and 70s, European countries such as Holland, France and Belgium thought it wonderful to let the European Commission manage their relations with former colonies,” says Louise van Schaik, coordinator for European external affairs at the Dutch Clingendael institute.

The European Development Fund (EDF), an overarching instrument managed by the European Commission, is for a large part the middle man between member states and its former colonies. It was launched in 1959 and today, the 11th EDF amounts to 30.5 billion Euros for the period of 2014-2020.

The EDF almost goes completely (97%) to African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. Most of these countries are former colonies. “One in five euros from Europe comes from the European Commission, making it the second biggest contributor to international development aid after the United States. That is already quite impressive,” says Van Schaik.

However, development aid from the member states is still political. “There is still a lack of coordination, but that is not because there is a lack of will. The Commission tries to coordinate, but it can only do so much to get the member states around the table,” says Gavas.

The European Commission has created a framework to make sure aid goes to the countries who need it the most. 80% of all aid goes to low income countries, but according to experts even the most recent European Commission’s policy leaves wiggle room for member states to choose their beneficiaries with political motives.

Development aid was, is and always will be important for the EU and its member states. Together they are by far the biggest provider of development aid on a world scale. In 2013, they accounted for 52.5% of all the world’s aid with 56.5 billion Euros, 0.43% of the EU’s Gross National Income (GNI).

Sums like these seem large, but are still far under the 0.7% goal the EU member states set for themselves in 2005. “If they don’t reach the goals, it will come back to bite them in their ass,” says Jeroen Kwakkenbos. He explains: “They will lose important credibility at international negotiations if they fail to meet the goals they set for themselves.”

And those negotiations are coming. In 2015, the European year for Development, three important summits will bring international leaders together to debate development. In July they’ll discuss financing development in Addis Ababa, in September they meet in New York to work on the replacement of the Millenium Development Goals that end this year and in December the world will be watching Paris for the highly anticipated cimate summit.

The EU stresses that much progress has been made fighting poverty and providing education, but as European Commissioner for Development and Cooperation, Neven Mimica said in a press conference at the start of the year: “Even if we have reduced the amount of poor people to 800 million. It is still 800 million poor people too many in the world.”

Subscribe to our newsletters