Oxfam chief: Europe failed to be a constructive aid donor

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The EU's failure to stand up for the world's poorest people and take the lead at last week's aid summit in South Korea was worrying, said Oxfam's EU office head Natalia Alonso in an interview with EURACTIV. 

Natalia Alonso is the Head of Oxfam International EU office in Brussels. She spoke to EURACTIV' Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti.

The High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in South Korea has just ended. It seems many European NGOs are disappointed by the outcome. Are you? 

Absolutely. There’s too much unfinished business and citizens in poor countries deserve better. Negotiators had a real opportunity to lock all parties into a deal on a scorecard to keep everyone honest, but they did not make it happen.  

We have new players around the negotiating table – the emerging donors – but the story is always the same: when are we going to see concrete progress on the way aid is delivered to poor people?

The EU’s lack of leadership and coordination were worrying. Europe was not constructive at the summit – it should have supported efforts to improve the effectiveness of European aid and secured an ambitious global deal. But instead the EU did not stand up for what the world’s poorest people need, and this meeting turned out to be a conversation between Northern and Southern donors about what kind of aid they want to give.  

We’ll know six months down the line whether there’s any meat on the bones of this deal. And we hope this is not going to be decided behind closed doors.

Do you really think the final agreement was watered down? In what way?

Yes. The EU allowed a watered-down agreement on global aid reform to accommodate geopolitical agendas. I am talking about giving concessions to some Southern donors. At the talks, these countries pushed for an agreement to exempt South-South cooperation from the 2005 Paris Declaration, where donors and poor countries struck a deal where recipients would take steps to such as tackling corruption to manage aid better in return for improved donor behaviour.

These Southern donors faced strong opposition from the US, Japan, and partner countries. However they were strongly supported by European donors, led by the UK. Gradually, the negotiators gave in, until only South Africa and the US remained objecting.

Eventually, after South Africa yielded to the consensus, the US asked for a commitment that if the concession was made to these Southern donors, these countries would need to publicly endorse the Busan deal fully. These countries agreed but it leaves us with mixed feelings as it suggests that different standards can now apply to South-South cooperation than to traditional aid.

What would have been a satisfying and reasonable outcome?

For us, the summit would have been a success if leaders had clarified how to put into action the deals that had already struck over the past decade to make aid work better. For example, as I said before, we expected leaders to endorse a global system of checks and balances to keep donors honest and improve the way they provide foreign assistance. We also expected donors to take bolder steps to make aid more transparent, predictable, less fragmented – in other words, more useful for the poor people who need it.

If the EU had shown more revolve, Busan could have delivered stronger results. One billion poor people are waiting for more than words – they want measurable action.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said rich donor nations needed to keep aid flowing to the people who need it most, despite the crisis. Is development aid in danger?

Well, donors are not on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals. In 2000, all rich countries recommitted to spend 0.7% of their national income as overseas aid by 2015, but a number of EU governments, such as Italy and Germany, are pretty far from this.

Last year, overall EU aid amounted to just 0.43% , leaving a shortfall of €15 billion. Only four EU countries reached the 0.7% target – these were Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Europe should not use the economic crisis as an excuse not to meet their promises to the world’s poorest – they are actually hit first and hardest by a crisis they are not to blame.  Oxfam found that the economic crisis left 56 poor countries with a combined ‘fiscal hole’ – that is, a shortfall in budgetary revenue – of $65 billion in 2009 and 2010. There has never been a more urgent need to increase support to these countries and improve the quality of aid given so that it delivers better results to the people who need it most.

Our leaders should note that 84% of Europeans support development aid despite the financial crisis, according to an Eurobarometer report published last week.  

Is the US better at communicating its role as a major aid donor?

The US, through the role played by Secretary Clinton and USAID Head [Rajiv] Shah, has communicated quite effectively this past week, but the reality is that the EU has multiple players that have different priorities and ways of working. And this is precisely why we need to see Europe taking bolder steps to make its aid more effective.

The EU as a bloc gives over €53 billion a year to developing countries, which represents over 50% of global aid. No doubt it has the potential to lead the way in international aid [forums] like Busan.  

Why do you think the EU is asserting leadership? 

Well, to tell the truth, the EU has not led the charge at Busan this week. In fact, we are hugely disappointed because European member states were fragmented and so EU leadership suffered.

However, as a major development donor, the EU certainly has the potential to play a stronger role in the next six months to ensure the Global Partnership launched in Busan is up and running soon and to promote concrete commitments to maximise the impact of aid by putting developing countries in the driving seat of their own development.

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