Is ‘less’ really ‘more’ in the new European Consensus on Development?

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Development policy should focus on including local communities. [DG ECHO/Flickr]

European development policy must prioritise democracy, inclusiveness and sustainability. To do this the bloc has to change the way it interacts with stakeholders and support local initiatives, which are the building blocks of societies, writes Wouter Boesman.

Wouter Boesman is director of policy at PLATFORMA, the European voice of local and regional governments for development.

The new European Consensus on Development that was adopted by the council of ministers on 19 May builds on the efficiency adage: do less, do it differently and you will get more results. It is an echo of the minimalists cry that “less is more”. But can an architectural principle be applied to policies – and still make sense? Well, it depends… The consensus text captures the many ambitions of the European Union and its member states for external action, but with a subtext of internal stresses on the European states and the Union at large.

The framing of the consensus as a key moment for the EU to do more, with less, and do it better risks therefore having the outcome of “augmented reality” (it disappears when the power is off) rather than minimalism (constructs that continue to amaze across generations). Because, in fact, compared to the previous policies, the EU wants to do much more on the very specific fields of security, curbing illegal migration and private sector development, while it is much less explicit on how to interact with all the stakeholders involved (from grass-roots to subnational governments and the private sector to the UN).

“It is quite unpredictable what that will mean for sustainable global development.”

Short-term security concerns or stresses on internal political balances should not be the guiding principles of development policy. It is a real concern that national governments have now constructed additional arguments to divert budgets earmarked for ODA to other purposes, such as border control, defence and internal migration management.

The private sector must be engaged for sustainable development, no doubt about it. But it should also be held to account on key development principles to guarantee that the economic development they are bringing is sustainable for the people, cities and environment. There should be no down-tuning of good governance, human and labour rights principles when the EU deals with the private sector. “Less is more” would, in such cases, result in more damage and less development.

All of this can never be successful if this would mean less support for the key values of the European Union in its development actions: democracy, respect for human and labour rights, subsidiarity, rule of law. Fortunately, the EU promises more on these fronts as well.

“There is no sustainable development without local development. There will be no sustainable local development without local governments empowered and capacitated to govern: with legal competencies, democratic structures and the capacity to be the first interface between citizens and government.”

The consensus text clearly recognises that it will not achieve its objectives without local and regional governments. The next steps must now be to act on this re-positioning of local governments in the context of good democratic governance and the re-discovery of the key role decentralisation has for development.

As the European voice of local and regional governments that engage in international cooperation for sustainable development, PLATFORMA has always insisted that the need to boost capabilities for good democratic governance at the local level goes hand-in-hand with the need to create conducive national and global environments for local and regional governments to act on their mandate to govern. This must also include building capabilities at national levels to interact with local governments. It also includes giving local and regional governments a structural place at the table where policies are being developed. This is not the case today in many countries and even the EU, recognised as one of the best in class, still misses out on many opportunities to do more than tick the box of multi-stakeholder consultation.

Much more can be done to boost the role of local and regional governments. Supporting direct international cooperation between local and regional governments, for example. But it should also mean supporting local governments (through their representative associations) in participation in national policy dialogues, joint programming, etc.

Local governments are the building blocks for stable and sustainable local societies and are the fundament of any good working state or regional organisation. It is true for the EU and for the rest of the world. The European local and regional governments, with all the local challenges they face, are committed to continue supporting their colleagues to take their legitimate mandate: to govern their territory.

“Which way will it turn? Promoting decentralisation without talking directly to the local governments has already proven to deliver adverse results.”

As always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. What changes will we see in the next policy documents from the European Union? The paper on harnessing globalisation can be seen as a small but important sign. It shows an understanding that globalisation seen as courting only large multinational corporations has not brought the desired results, while national economies and local communities are, in fact, built on small and medium enterprises, civic initiatives, academia and good, inclusive local governance.

There will be many more opportunities to check how the principles of the consensus are put to music. Particularly, the mandate the EU will give itself to negotiate future partnerships with the ACP countries and with the African Union will be key to seeing what and who gets the upper hand: democracy and inclusive sustainable development or security and a purely financial globalisation.

The European Development Consensus suggests willingness to go for the first option, Europe’s actions over the past months have been less clear.

“Choosing to prioritise democracy and inclusive sustainable development might not always turn out to be easiest option but it is where the European Union has a unique added value to bring – and many would accompany the EU.”

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