Research the track record of European aid

Development Policy19 Jun 2008Torbjörn Becker

There is no doubt that a lot still needs to be done when to achieve the MDGs (millennium development goals) and other important development goals. There is also no doubt that Europe could play a very important role in this process. However, it is far from clear what the European perspective or approach is. This can be seen in the level of commitment to helping developing countries, which varies greatly across the EU. Important development goals cannot be achieved if countries in Europe do not work together. Nevertheless, there are a number of issues where there is a stronger sense of a common European stance, probably most notably concerning environmental issues, as well as (in)equality and gender.

Hopefully, Europe could also set itself apart from some other donors by providing more development assistance that is not governed by self-interest but based on a fundamental view that we do this to help people in need. Development assistance is too often today ‘sold’ as a way of making the world safer for people in developed countries, including in the EU, rather than to alleviate poverty and ensure safer lives for people in the developing world. In the wake of international terrorism, it has become particularly fashionable to stress that we need to help poor countries so that they do not develop hostile feelings toward developed countries (and prevent desperate people from coming here to commit acts of terror as a result). What happened to development assistance that is based on the fact that people are in need and the developed world has the means to help? Is perhaps the fact that we see such weak correlation between good outcomes and aid in developing countries simply a reflection of the fact that the donors’ focus was not squarely on making life better in receiving countries?

In terms of promoting a European policy, it is vital that it is reflected in all the different organizations / fora where Europe has a say and that are involved in formulating policies and delivering development assistance. Consequently, a common European policy should be reflected in bilateral and multilateral (World Bank, UN, etc) development work and not only when the EU is the direct source of development assistance. A European view that seeks to be contrary to the work of other major players for the sake of setting it apart, is not going to be useful to the countries Europe wants to help.

As for the ERD, there are many urgent issues on the development agenda but the first issue to consider is whether the focus should be on current issues or more long-term / structural issues. Having a report on current issues, such as the severe food crisis, will potentially generate more visibility and interest in the media than a report on longer term issues, such as why aid works so poorly. Nevertheless, the latter is one of the most important issues if we want to achieve the MDGs. The way international aid is organized on the donor side is an issue that is currently under-researched but one which we at SITE are currently focusing on. Many of the other ‘big’ issues (environment, security, energy, etc) receive a fair amount of attention from the other players in this field, and it is unclear if this should also be the focus of an ERD. One could also wonder if the report should have a strong research focus (which would suggest a report more geared towards understanding different aspects of development) or be more policy oriented (more focused on proposing new policies to achieve certain goals). The ideal product would be a research based report that underpins novel policies to achieve the MDGs and other development goals. However, this is probably just wishful thinking, since any recommendations that seriously challenge current policies will almost certainly be too controversial for the report. This then brings in the issue of who the issuer of the report is and if it should be viewed as an official document from the EU, representing its views.

An alternative way to use the report would be to have European development assistance as the recurring theme and solicit serious research in a number of interesting areas such as, how the EU spends its development aid, through which channels aid is distributed, what is the historical track-record of European aid versus aid from other donors. It could also be a way of funding more and better independent impact evaluations to provide more insight to when aid really delivers results.

In the end, and to avoid the report being the subject of long political negotiations, a research-based report that is written in easily accessible language, which can be used as an input for decision makers and the interested public, is probably the best way to go. The report could then contain two sections, one looking at a topical issue from a European perspective (for example, how can Europe help alleviate hunger in the wake of rising food prices) and one focusing on important long term issues (for example, how should Europe work to improve how international aid is organized to make aid work better).

As for the (im)possibilities of a European development agenda from a Swedish perspective, there is a fair bit of skepticism about the role of the EU. Many Swedes (perhaps rightly so) think that Swedish bilateral aid is a better alternative than aid through the EU. There is also the issue of why we should have both bilateral aid, multilateral aid (World Bank, UN etc) and aid through the EU. That said, it is clear that Sweden alone will not be able to provide the assistance needed to achieve the important development targets, so there is no real alternative for Sweden but to try to influence the EU, and other donors, to increase their development efforts and push for a less selfish view on how assistance should be provided, how much, and why.