As the European Union embarks on a major revamp of its aid policies to the developing world, the Francophonie organisation believes its close ties with French-speaking African nations can help the Union with "political mobilisation" on development issues.
The euro zone debt crisis has had a major impact on development aid, with some European countries massively cutting their budgets last year as part of austerity measures to restore their finances.
The European Commission has proposed re-orienting its aid policy with an Agenda for Change concentrating on the world's poorest countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Emerging economies like India and Brazil, meanwhile, would see their EU aid budgets reduced drastically.
For the Organisation Internationale de La Francophonie (OIF), the European Commission is "one of the important aid donors in the world" and should remain so.
The OIF would certainly not want to step on the Commission's toes when it comes to aid policy. "We have programmes, but it is clear that we do not have the budgets of the Commission," says Pietro Sicuro, Permanent Representative in Brussels for the OIF.
"Our job is not to give money and compete with the European Union. On the other hand, guiding and helping the EU in fields where the OIF has great experience, it's much easier for us," he told EURACTIV in an interview.
'A partner for political mobilisation'
The organisation, which brings together 79 countries – many of them in French-speaking Sub-saharan Africa –, prefers highlighting the role it can play in mobilising its members on specific development issues.
"There are already a lot of synergies, but we each have our own role to play," says Sicuro, "For the EU, the OIF is a partner among others," he says in a self-effacing manner. "We're a kind of partner for political mobilisation."
For example, the organisation works closely with the Secretariat of the Group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP), which currently counts 79 member countries, including 33 French-speaking ones.
Sicuro says these French-African networks, which are at the core of the OIF, give the organisation leverage when it comes to mobilising countries around specific development issues.
"When working on South-South cooperation, for example, it lets you bring forward the whole strategy for the Istanbul conference on least developed countries," Sicuro said. Similarly, it helped African members of the OIF to bring forward a common position during the Forum on Aid Effectiveness development, held in Busan last year.
These networks are also useful when it comes to coordinating action at the EU level – and secure some of its aid funds along the way.
"We have the means, at the political level, to coordinate, to sustain and to prepare actions for funding through the European Union," said Sicuro, adding that part of this work is done via the ACP secretariat, located in Brussels, which represents African, Caribbean and Pacific countries with which the EU has special trade agreements.
One example is the 'Hub & Spokes' project – co-funded by the European Commission, the Commonwealth secretariat, and the OIF –, which supports ACP countries in international trade negotiations.
"This project brings together experts in the context of a real South-South cooperation," Sicuro explained. "An expert from Benin will, for example, help Senegal to participate in all trade negotiations on the international stage and help develop a trade policy for African countries."
French as a 'language of influence'
The French language remains of course a major component of development aid programmes supported by La Francophonie.
"The best way we found to enhance the French language is not by acting as a kind of language police – this is not our approach. Rather, we consider that French is a language that should be more often at the initiative of discussions, of actions – in summary, a language of influence."
For Sicuro, the logic is simple. If French is used as the main language at the very beginning of a discussion in international forums, it will have more chances of being adopted by others who join the conversation at a later stage – even if their French is a little hesitant.
"People who speak French will dare to speak," Sicuro says, whereas otherwise, officials will more naturally turn to English as the lingua franca. "It also helps develop the francophone way of thinking because each linguistic community has its own ways of thinking."
"We must value the francophone perspective, its way of thinking."
The Haiti earthquake
A good example of language aspects in a disaster relief context is the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
The United States and the United Nations were the first to intervene in the wake of the disaster, bringing much-needed help to the local population, Sicuro said. But the aid was delivered to the population in English, he added, which made it less effective.
"If well used, the language of development assistance should be one that is closest to the population concerned, which often involves several languages," Sicuro said, citing major African idioms alongside French, English, Portuguese and Spanish.
"If I help the rebuilding of Haiti, for example, I'd better do it in French rather than English, to the extent that Haitian culture is Creole French. If I am helping to establish schools and I do this in English, I will cut myself from the population and fall in a cultural gap."
Sicuro immediately stressed that this does not amount to criticism of the United States or the United Nations, which were operating in a crisis situation.
"But we must also respect the culture, the history and language of those concerned. This is why development policy must be as close as possible to the population".
He says the same logic should have applied for the UN police force in Haiti, which came from Pakistan and therefore spoke English – a situation which he said "has created much misunderstandings and tensions with the population."
"As they were in direct contact with the population, it might have been more appropriate to send French-speaking troops," Sicuro said.