EU needs ‘radical rethink’ of foreign aid in 2016

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

A field ventilator demonstrated on a teddy bear at the annual AidEx trade fair for foreign aid professionals. Brussels, 2015. [MattTempest/Flickr]

These are challenging times for policy makers, as global security risks become ever more complex. The tragic events of 2015 show how the challenges of poverty and development need to be tackled together, write James Mackie and Rhys Williams.

James Mackie is Senior Adviser for the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), and Rhys Williams is Communications Officer.

In 2016, the European Union will need a radical rethink of its foreign and development policies. The temptation may be to look for immediate solutions – but there are no quick or easy answers. We need to look at the root causes of these crises, and collective action is required at the global level.

Four major conferences in 2015 set out a package of global agreements on trade (#WTOMC10 in Nairobi), development finance (#FFD3 in Addis Ababa), climate change (#COP21 in Paris) and the universal Sustainable Development Goals (the #GlobalGoals in New York). These offer the opportunity to adapt international cooperation to the realities of the 21st Century.

At these events, the international community came to a consensus on some tough issues. So what is needed in 2016 is strong political backing to start fully exploiting the potential of these four global agreements for the long and difficult road ahead.

Coherence, as much as commitment

One of the principal features of the UN’s ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for 2030 is their ‘universal’ nature – they need to be implemented around the world even in developed countries. This presents the EU and its member states with a double challenge. How can you realign existing policies and practices around aid, while weaving the targets of the UN goals and principles of shared responsibilities into internal EU policies?

For the EU and its member states, there needs to be full ownership of the Sustainable Development Goals throughout all ministries and sectors, beyond just those dealing with foreign affairs and development.

It is now widely recognised that aid is not the only solution for development, but it can play a vital role. Europe needs to redefine the role of aid in an era of austerity. Aid can be used more effectively if it is focused strategically in the world’s least developed countries and used as a catalyst to mobilise other resources like domestic taxation and private sector investment. This was the consensus that emerged in Addis Ababa at the UN’s Third International Conference on Financing for Development last July. 

But it’s not just about aid. What is essential for realising the integrated ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals is the notion of policy coherence for sustainable development recognised as one target of SDG17 in the UN agreement.

One danger may be that different players will continue to concentrate on the goals they see as most relevant to them and not work in a more integrated fashion that takes all the goals into account. But policy coherence inevitably involves looking across the board, making political choices and creating viable and accountable ways to measure the effects of each policy on each other – including trade, financial, agricultural and climate related policies to name but a few. 

Seeing the big picture

Europe’s neighbourhood faces increased instability in Syria, Iraq, the Sahel, Central Africa and the Horn of Africa. Federica Mogherini, as the High Representative of the European Union, has favoured a new comprehensive ‘global’ strategy that extends beyond the traditional security domain to cover all aspects of EU external policy.

If Europe is to respect the legacy of 2015, and as this new strategy will shape EU foreign policy for the best part of the next decade, formulating it cannot be done in isolation from the new Sustainable Development Goals, the new EU’s new trade policy, Trade for All, and the 2016 review of the European Neighbourhood Policy. The global strategy should define a truly integrated approach where external and internal policies are harmonised.

Dealing with migration is not just about border controls – it is also about addressing the root causes of why millions are displaced and managing the global flows of migrating people in a way that supports sustainable development everywhere. The EU’s new Africa Trust Fund shows Europe reaching out to African countries to establish better cooperation on the migration crisis, but it must also involve a long-term commitment to development, and a diplomatic response for unstable regions. 

A crisis mood appears to have settled in as the new status quo for Europe and many parts of the world. Yet the year behind us was also a year of major global agreements, which constitute impressive steps forward in dealing with global challenges. In 2016, we need to build on this and Europe, and the rest of the world will need political vision, imagination and a genuine sprit of cooperation to collectively deal with the shared challenges. 

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