Seven critical questions for review of ‘European Consensus on Development’

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A truck paid for by EU development aid at the Empire des Enfants school for abandoned street kids in Dakar, Senegal. [MattTempest/Flickr]

There are many changes impacting the future of European development cooperation: a serious existential crisis in the European Union in the wake of Brexit, a newly agreed 2030 global sustainable development and climate change agenda, and major geopolitical shifts, writes Andrew Sherriff.

Andrew Sherriff is the Head of ECDPM’s Strengthening European External Action Programme.

Crises on Europe’s borders and the resulting influx of migrants and refugees are the dominant issues on the international agenda of European policy makers. The current focus is on a new European external investment plan and an increasing use of development resources for security sector reform.

Given all these developments, and the recent launch of the EU Global Strategy, it seems like an opportune time to ask where European development cooperation fits in the mix and to review the overarching policy commitment of the 2005 European Consensus on Development in order to give direction to the next 10 years of action.

This revision is also likely to inform EU decision-making on its future relations with African, Caribbean and Pacific states and the future policy direction in the EU’s budget for development.

The stakes are high. How will European’s interests to address topical political issues be balanced with more structural long-term approaches necessary for development?

The EU’s Member States’ Development Ministers and the European Commissioner on Development will meet on 12 September to discuss these matters. The European Consensus on Development as a document was an important norm setter in the past, but what would make it relevant for development in a changing world in the future?

There are seven critical questions for reflection:

1. What’s the purpose of a new Consensus?

With what has been laid out above it would seem clear that there are good reasons to review the Consensus, but what is the actual purpose of a revised document? Is it to provide strategic direction to the EU, to communicate within the EU, or outside of the EU? Is it to bind EU actors together, or to articulate a new direction?  The tone and nature of the document may be quite different dependent on the purpose.  Can it realistically serve several of these ends at the same time? Or is it going to be the classic EU document of trying to cover all purposes? Are there those willing to invest political energy in its sponsorship to implementation or is this just a technical revision job that needs doing?

2. What’s the added value of the European Union in development?

The old adage about the European Union being the largest collective donor is tired, and out of step of a global development agenda where aid, while still important, is unlikely to be the major vectors of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  What is the new overarching narrative of the EU collectively that adds actual value over others in the evolving development sphere?

3. What has been learned from past practice?

The European Union has been implementing the Consensus over the last 11 years and the EU has a collective profile round the world. And other actors expect some form of consistency in the EU’s action. What are the main lessons learned from evaluations of the past collective EU effort?  The European Union has a poor record of creating new policies and strategies without a thorough and honest, more ‘political’, review of why the past ones have not worked out as intended.  So, how is the evidence from the past going to be systematically used and taken into account?

4. What’s going to change?

What are the bold new ideas for the revised Consensus?  There is a danger that it will repeat much of the past with the addition of the migration crises, SDGs and conflict on the EU’s borders. What are going to be the ‘new’ types of commitments, areas of engagement, direction, partnerships and solutions the EU is going to give?

5. What’s the continuing acquis that should not be lost?

A danger is that some positive acquis will be lost as geopolitics and short-term national interests knock at the door. How strong a basis for collective action do the EU and its Member States need and want going forward? What are the major points that must be retained?

6. Do we have a modern, interesting and engaging drafting process to get the best outcome – can we learn from other process, e.g. the EU Global Strategy?

An official European Commission on-line consultation conducted over the summer was a fairly inauspicious start. As are persistent rumours that advanced drafts have already been written. The need now is to engage stakeholders in a meaningful and exciting purpose of change.

7.  How do we make this work in practice?

The European Union is littered with strategies and guiding documents, yet the hard work comes with the implementation of the various policies. How is the new European Consensus on Development going to be collectively implemented? A coherent, cohesive implementation is needed; otherwise it could be a waste of time and energy.

The revision of the Consensus is potentially a great opportunity to renew and revitalise the EU’s approach to development, but it could so easily become a missed opportunity. The informal Foreign Affairs Council Development Meeting on 12  September is the first test of what we will get.