Voices from the African, Caribbean and Pacific nation states pushed back on Monday (15 May) at the focus on ‘democracy’ in the European New Consensus on Development, in a debate which opens old wounds between donor countries and developing nations.
The EU – the world’s largest aid donor – is in the processing of adopting the ‘New Consensus’ policy document, to update its policies in line with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)s created by the United Nations.
Many of the SDGs and the New Consensus are uncontroversial, but the commitment to democracy, and what Western donor states understand by that, saw a plethora of voices from Africa and the Caribbean raise objections at a two-day summit of EU and ACP groups in Brussels.
On the opening day of the Meeting of ACP-EU Economic and Social Interest groups, speakers from Haiti, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and the Caribbean hit back at narrow or existing definitions of ‘democracy’ in the New Consensus document – which is being adopted against the background of the post-Cotonou trading arrangements between the 28-member bloc and the ACP nations from 2020.
In front of an audience of around 80 representatives from the Commission, Parliament, EEAS and ACP states, Jethro T. Greene, head of the Caribbean Farmers’ Network (CaFAN), himself a fruit grower from St Vincent and the Grenadines, warned that even in a functioning ACP democracy “those elected do not represent the totality of the people”.
“The reality is that we have to get consensus across the parties, not just the governments,” Greene told the debate.
“All [our] governments are ‘minority governments’, in that 50% of the people do not vote, and the 50% that do split their vote between the ruling party and the opposition.”
At the heart of the debate is clause 3.49, paragraph 49, of the New Consensus, that states: “The EU and its member states will promote the universal values of democracy, good governance, rule of law and human rights for all – across the full range of partnerships and instruments and across all situations, including through development action.”
While that may not sound controversial in Brussels, many ACP nations complain – privately and publicly – that many Western states were far from parliamentary democracies with universal suffrage when they underwent industrialisation in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
And some recent academic studies show that democracy and development are not as neatly linked as some donor bodies would hope.
Another speaker, from the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, put the problem more plainly.
Leontine Mbolanomena, a workers’ representative from Madagascar, said her government was “100% dependent on aid, so the government will sign up for anything [while] the citizens pay the price.
“Support for civil society organisations is all well and good,” she told the audience of specialists, “but NGOs need the capacity to build in civil society to monitor how governments are using the funds.”
That echoed a point of Greene’s, who said he was “not optimistic about achieving the SDGs [by 2030], because we have to get grassroots people involved.
“More declarations and ‘Consensus’ are easy on paper,” he warned, “but at grassroots level a more difficult thing. Civil Society doesn’t have all the technical skills to analyse [what governments do.]”
At the other extreme, Zimbabwe – something of a pariah state in diplomatic circles, if not for the aid groups trying to operate within its borders – warned EU leaders against “trying to achieve Utopia in a day.”
John Mufukere, director of the Employers’ Confederation of Zimbabwe, said: “It is good to empower CSO (Civil Society Organisations) to hold governments to account, but the British have a saying ‘Don’t throw the baby away with the bathwater’.”
“Don’t insist we can get there, before we can get there,” he warned. Zimbabwe has been run continuously by President Robert Mugabe since 1980, who last year announced he would stand again as president in 2018, at the age of 96.
The 17-point UN Sustainable Development Goals – criticised at the meeting as “more abstract and fragmentary” than the better-known Millennial Development Goals they replaced – are supposed to be met by 2030, and include the opening promise of “No poverty”.
They are – at least superficially – less doctrinaire about the promotion of democracy, relegating it to the 16th of 17 goals, under the heading “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.”
The EU was not immune from criticism at the meeting. Ionut Sibian, the rapporteur for the European Economic and Social Committee, railed against what he called “trendsetters [in Official Development Aid] who count financial implication areas for expenses that five or 10 years ago would have been unthinkable for this policy.”
Although he did not single them out by name, the UK, Germany and Sweden, among others, have recently started using ODA funds on so-called in-house ‘host country spending’, that is, housing and feeding refugees, with some also now mooting classifying some security spending under ODA.
Sibian did specify that theme, asking rhetorically: “Security and migration control [spending]? Okay – if we channel more money to poverty eradication.”
Michael John Ellis, head of unit for Policy and Coherence at DG Devco, struck a conciliatory note, telling the audience it was fair to ask “Okay, there’s a declaration, a nice ceremony, we all pat ourselves on the back, but sometimes… ‘what happens [next]?”
He added it was fair that “recognising governments don’t necessarily represent everyone”, but “one good thing” about the SDGs was that they at least “bring everyone together.”
Joan Lafranco, speaking for the Trade Union Development Cooperation Network, suggested that while developing ACP states were “formalising their economy”, each country was different, and a baseline of “striving for decent work, with social dialogue” was the least states could sign up to.
“But if we rely on the market alone [rather than pushing for democratic practices], the SDGs will never be achieved,” he warned.
The ACP-EU two day meeting continues today (16 May), with sessions on industrialisation, and food waste.