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Less bureaucracy, more efficiency as Europe ponders aid future

Diverse and often contradictory interests between donor nations and aid organizations were on ample display at the European Development Days. And no one seems to know exactly what role the European Union will play.

Bangladeshi child drinks from EU-sponsored water source

Aid agencies worry about whether the money will continue to flow

The fifth edition of the European Development Days, a two-day EU-sponsored conference in Brussels that brings together representatives of governments, humanitarian NGOs and others, was the first to take place after the creation of the European External Action Service, the EU equivalent of a foreign ministry.

Not surprisingly, much of the focus of the discussions was what impact increasing EU coordination and involvement would have on the aid handed out by some of the world's wealthiest countries to some of its poorest.

No one seemed particularly optimistic. Deputy Chairman of the Africa Commission Erastus Mwencha, for example, said the body had too little power, asking for instance why the EU failed to have single coordinated positions at groups like the World Trade Organization.

Representatives of aid groups, meanwhile, said they feared that more power in Brussels would simply bring increased bureaucracy.

School in Nairobi

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"Again there are also problems with red tape," said Philomena Johnson, the director of the charity group Caritas in Ghana. "What we call long processes and procedures that make it impossible for developing countries to make optimal benefits from the resources that come to them to reduce poverty."

And the individual countries in the EU are also wary about handing over control of what have previously been national aid initiatives.

"As a member state with quite a lot of money and thereby quite a lot of responsibility, I have to see who is accountable," said Swedish Development Minister Gunilla Carlsson. "That's why it has been hard to devote all the money to Brussels. It has been rather anonymous, it's really bureaucratic, and also as a donor, it's very hard to have influence."

Carlsson was speaking from a position of moral high ground. Sweden is one of only five countries that have achieved aid targets formulated 40 years ago.

0.7 percent - not enough or too much?

Ambulance in a village in Ghana

This ambulance is part of the Millennium Project, but larger aims aren't being met


In 1970, the UN General Assembly decided that the world's wealthy countries should be devoting 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product to aid. That goal was confirmed by the UN Millennium Project, and the target date was set at 2015.

The EU and its member states provide some 50 billion euros ($66.6 billion) in aid annually, but in terms of percentage that figure does not come even close to the target.

Oxfam says Germany, for instance, spent only 0.35 percent of its 2009 gross domestic product on developmental assistance, slightly less than the year before, and isn't scheduled to meet the UN goal until 2027.

EU Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs used the Brussels event to remind EU members of their obligations.

"The real challenge is how Europeans will use the 0.7 percent so that it really has the impact our taxpayers expect," Piebalgs said. "Our taxpayers expect that there is a visible change in the conditions of life in developing countries."

But mentioning expectations and measureable effects also raises the sensitive issue of whether developmental aid truly works.

Two hands exchanging euro notes

Critics say the money never gets to the poor

Aid, according to a famous quip attributed to British economist Peter Bauer, is "an excellent method for transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries."

And earlier this year, the free-market Washington think-tank Center for Global Development published a report claiming that the 0.7 percent figure was arbitrary, and that less money, if well spent, would do more to benefit poor people in, for instance, Africa.

"The assumptions that in Africa all aid becomes investment and all investment becomes growth have no empirical support," the report's authors concluded. "The evidence is very strong that Africa's growth performance has been weak not from a lack of capital per se, but from low productivity of that capital."

In other words, the problem is less about giving more money than about ensuring that money is used to generate lasting improvements. For this reason, Germany has been placing more and more emphasis on linking aid to good governance in recipient countries.

Quid pro quo

German Development Minister Dirk Niebel

Niebel is among those who say that money is only as good as the results it yields

Although idealistic notions of human solidarity are one factor that motivates developmental aid, another is simple self-interest.

Countries rich in natural resources such as Libya, Algeria and the Central Asia Republics are increasingly becoming a focus of both German and European aid initiatives.

On a slightest less morally ambiguous note, most European countries see aid as a means of encouraging stability in poorer countries and thus a vastly cheaper alternative to military interventions.

Germany's Development Minister Dirk Niebel recently made this point with reference to Afghanistan.

"We assume that, if we want to bring our soldiers home, our efforts have to put a clear emphasis on civilian support," Niebel told reporters. "The citizens of Afghanistan need a true peace dividend. They have to see that our effort clearly betters their personal living conditions. That will have on an effect on regions that aren't so secure and others where we would hope to see some quick improvements."

This "butter versus guns" ideal is, of course, anything but new, but it does underscore a point that increasing numbers of European and world leaders are making.

Where aid is concerned, delivery counts every bit as much as amount.

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge

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