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Simon Maxwell is the director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London. He was one of the initiators of the ERD.

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Ellen Lammersis a researcher and writer based in Amsterdam.

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‘All these problems are an opportunity for Europe’

Simon Maxwell:

Ellen Lammers | June 16, 2008

Simon Maxwell is the director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London. He was one of the initiators of the ERD.

Simon Maxwell, development economist from Oxford, worked overseas for UNDP and many years (1981-1997) at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at Sussex University. In 1997 he was appointed director of ODI, the Overseas Development Institute in London, which is Britain’s leading think-tank on international development and humanitarian issues. One of ODI’s programmes, RAPID (Research and Policy in Development), specifically works on improving the use of research and evidence in developing policy and on bridging the gap between researchers and policy-makers. Maxwell will stand down as director of ODI in 2009.

You argue that the European Commission should play a bigger role in development cooperation. Why?

Multilateral aid has always had great advantages in terms of cost-effectiveness and political accountability. The European Commission (EC) is a form of multilateral aid with features that make it even more attractive, now that the development agenda is changing. These include political institutions shared with development partners, a strong link to trade policy and also a clear relation to the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Security has become a prominent issue. Some people think that is an excuse to divert money from genuine development spending to interest-driven foreign policy. I think something different. The greatest development challenges are found in fragile regions, like the Horn of Africa, where traditional aid will not tackle problems that are political in origin. In such regions, coherent thinking is needed to join up aid, foreign policy and sometimes military effort. The EC has invested in producing regional strategies along these lines.

More generally, the new agenda is not only about security. A shift is taking place from thinking about national development only to also thinking about regional and global public goods. Climate change is the most obvious example, but water management or global disease threats also require us to act as a community and not as nation states.

But how do you think EU member states can be convinced to yield their sovereignty and let the EU handle this?

By demonstrating the strength of the argument: that the changing development agenda does favour a European multilateral approach. At the same time, the EU has to demonstrate its capacity to deal with the new reality. The creation of EuropeAid, deconcentration to country offices, agreement on a single EU development policy, the new code of conduct on working together – all these have helped to close the large and long-standing gap between potential and realization. But policymakers in developing countries still perceive the EC as being overly bureaucratic. And many of us who observe the EU aid programme in practice are very disappointed about the line of accountability for EuropeAid and the division of responsibilities between the development and foreign affairs commissioners Louis Michel and Benita Ferrero Waldner. We need a single development commissioner responsible for all aspects of development cooperation.

We have heard you say that 2008 and 2009 offer promising opportunities for a more efficient EU development assistance. Why?

The treaty ratification process is underway. The budget review has begun. Next year, there will be elections for the European Parliament and the appointment of a new European Commission. This provides an opportunity for a restructuring of responsibilities and for a very strong perspective on the new development agenda. And on how it should be delivered by the EU.

But what about the current economic situation? Will that not introduce obstacles to a more progressive approach to aid?

We have had a sequence of relatively favourable years for development. Despite that, the Gleneagles commitments have not been fulfilled. We are now no longer in that favourable international economic environment. We are faced with the credit crunch, the prospect of a recession and a potential crisis linked to the spike in the prices of oil and of course food.

All these problems are, I believe, at the same time opportunities for Europe. The driver of change is often a sense of crisis. Faced with these political problems, our political leaders may well be driven to the EU as one of the answers. For example, management of the increase in food prices requires very strong collective action and unified intervention by the aid system, but it also links back to the trade discussion. As British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said, one of the most important contributions we can make to alleviate the food crisis is to secure a Doha trade deal.

How do you value the role of knowledge and research in all this?

‘There is nothing so practical as a good theory’ is a phrase by social scientist Kurt Lewin that applies here. We have in Europe the strongest community of development researchers and thinkers in the world, with very strong institutional linkages through EADI. On other side of the table, the EC has high ambitions to be at the forefront of world thinking on international development. But the EC recognizes that it does not yet have the strength and capacity internally to be a genuinely ideas-led and knowledge-rich organization. So in theory at least the opportunity appears rather favourable.

That is how the ERD was born. You are among the initiators. What is your view at this moment in time?

There is a challenge for the ERD to be as clear and strategic as the World Development Report and the Human Development Report. It will take time to achieve that. But this certainly is a very important opportunity for intellectual leadership to be embedded in the heart of EU policymaking. I sincerely hope that the ERD process will offer sufficient scope for intellectual leadership and for the production of new ideas. And if so, that these will be listened to.

The idea of the ERD is to enhance a European perspective on development. How would the world benefit from that?

One can say that there is a European view of the world that is rather different from that of the US. The US tends to favour hard power; the EU tends to favour soft power. The US is very strongly in favour of markets; the EU is strongly in favour of markets and believes they need to be underpinned by a social infrastructure.

My entirely personal view is that concepts like ‘global social inclusion’ and ‘global social justice’ resonate strongly in Europe and are a focus of domestic policy in most of our countries. It appears a very exciting challenge to me to take these concepts and transform them into a new paradigm, a mission, that could inform our international development policy.

If you take a global social justice or inclusion perspective, you are not only interested in a very arithmetic objective of reducing the number of people who live on less than US$1 a day. You are also interested in people’s participation in society, their access to decision making, their voice and their agency. If you are interested in social justice, you’re interested in equal opportunity, but you’re also interested in a reasonable equity in distribution of outcomes, which is not the same as equality of distribution of outcomes. It is my belief that global social justice as a concept would capture many of the preoccupations of European people and policymakers. The concept can add to the MDG framework and be something distinctive that Europe could bring to the table.

Photo credit main picture: Marc Vassal