The EU in fighting poverty: Trailblazer or penny-pincher?

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]

This week in Addis Ababa, some huge decisions will be made – decisions that will affect the future of millions of people, writes Michael Elliott.

Michael Elliott is President and CEO of the ONE Campaign.

Across Europe, economists and politicians are working to analyse every twist and turn of the crisis in Greece. But in Addis Ababa, the stakes are even higher: can world leaders agree to finance a development agenda designed to end extreme poverty by 2030? High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini and European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica are expected to join national governments, civil society, and the private sector at an historic summit that aims to find a financing plan for development that will last fifteen years.

Why now? In September, the United Nations will adopt a new set of Global Goals to end extreme poverty in New York, replacing the Millennium Development Goals of 2000. But unless world leaders put their money where their mouth is, these new goals risk being no more than ink on a page.

This matters because the last 15 years have seen astonishing progress in human development. The proportion of people across the world living on less than $1.25 a day had fallen by over half since 1990. The number of children who die before they are five has dropped by 3.46 million annually since 2000. That means that every day, about 9,500 fewer tiny coffins are made than 15 years ago.

But we need to finish the job – and end extreme poverty once and for all.  The good news is that there is political will to do this, as the communiqué of the recent G7 summit in Bavaria reaffirmed. But it won’t happen without putting real resources on the table, and directing them to where they are needed most.

Globally, 1 billion people still live in extreme poverty. They are not spread evenly across the planet; in fact, the least developed countries bear a growing share of that population living in extreme poverty.  By 2030, half of the global extreme poor will be living in the least developed countries.

But here is the paradox of the fight against extreme poverty. While global aid is on the rise, aid to the poorest countries has been declining. The poorest in the least developed countries receive less aid per capita than the poorest in other countries – and aid to the very poorest countries was cut in at least eight EU member states last year. 

The EU and its member states, collectively the world’s largest donor of aid, has been strikingly unambitious in addressing this perverse trend. In May, EU development ministers upheld the EU’s existing promise to increase aid to 0.7% of national income. Yet their target for the least developed countries means they are keeping the share of aid for the poorest countries at today’s level – a mere 29% of the total. That raises the question: how will we end extreme poverty if we plan to continue spending less than a third of aid on the poorest countries?

Member states struggled to agree even on this deal in the Foreign Affairs Council, but there’s nothing to stop the Commission and EU Member States from individually stepping up in the last sprint towards the summit. Ireland and Belgium, for example, have recently committed to giving half of their aid to the poorest countries. Other EU countries should follow their lead in Addis Ababa, and pledge to prioritise the needs of the people and countries who need help most.

Aid is but the first step: delegates have also been vigorously negotiating on issues like boosting trade, investment and tax collection as sources of financing for development. How to ensure financing for social sectors in particular, and how to track both financing flows and results are also critical to the ultimate success of this summit.

This year, world leaders have the choice of setting out a roadmap for making extreme poverty a thing of the past. One year into new leadership in Brussels, we will see if the European Union still commands credibility as a formidable bloc for global progress towards a better life for all – or is content with ‘business as usual’ as a new level of ambition in international negotiations.

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