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Old clothing donations in Kenya
Image: AP

Undermining development

Mirjam Gehrke / cmk
April 20, 2014

The EU is one of the largest donors of development aid, but these policies have not played much of a role in the European election campaign. Economic interests, meanwhile, are jeopardizing its effectiveness.


Euro rescue, the banking union, a reduction of bureaucracy and more power for the European Parliament: these topics have been dominating the European election campaign in Germany. The fact that the various parties aren't talking up the fight against poverty in Africa, promoting economic development in Asia or calling for the strengthening of democracy and human rights in Latin America seems, at first glance, logical. After all, they are the elected representatives of EU citizens.

"It is unfortunately the case that development policy plays a subordinate role in the voting decision," said Norbert Neuser, a member of European Parliament with the Social Democratic Party, and also part of the Parliament's Committee on Development. In recent years, the EU has achieved much with its development work in cooperation with Africa; the focus on the UN's Millennium Development Goals has led to measurable results.

Development work can curb migration

The objective of EU development aid is to promote good governance, along with human and economic development. This includes promoting the sustainable use of natural resources, as well as contributing to the fight against hunger and poverty. According to the European Commission, efforts to contain migration are not among the stated objectives of the EU's development work.

However: development success can help ensure that people remain in their home countries. In Ethiopia, for example, the EU has devoted 200 million euros ($276.3 million) to road construction. As a result, people living in remote villages now have a faster and more secure route to larger cities, where they can sell their products on markets, which has reduced rural poverty significantly.

African refugees in the Mediterranean
Poverty and a lack of opportunities have forced many to flee to EuropeImage: picture alliance / ROPI

Contributing to development and the reduction of poverty in the developing countries of the South are therefore in Europe's best interest. After all, those who don't see a future at home end up leaving. Like the people on crowded refugee boats picked up by the Italian, Spanish and Greek coast guards, or the hundreds of people that have tried to reach European soil by scaling the fences surrounding the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco.

Export subsidies ruining African farmers

More than half of world's official development assistance (ODA) comes from the EU and its member states, with a focus on cooperation with the so-called ACP countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Of the 79 ACP countries, many are former European colonies.

In the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in 2009, the EU pledged to a coherent policy when it comes to development. Accordingly, any European policy decisions in the areas of foreign relations, agriculture or economic expansion must not interfere with the objectives of development policy.

The reality, however, is different. "On the one hand, the EU wants to do everything possible to fight poverty and hunger," said Christa Randzio-Plath, the vice president of the Association of German Development NGOS (VENRO). "On the other hand, they work against this development effort with food exports. What good is it to small farmers in Africa if their markets are flooded with cheap EU agricultural products?"

A market in Soweto
African farmers can hardly compete with EU agricultural exportsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

True, the EU subsidies for agricultural exports to Africa amounted only to 150 million euros this year. And in January, the EU commissioner responsible for agriculture and rural development, Dacian Ciolos, announced that export subsidies would be eliminated entirely - without giving a specific timeline. In any case, the damage is already done: decades-long export subsidies for products like poultry, for example, have driven many African farmers to ruin.

Unequal partnership

It's not just agriculture that has been affected, as European fishing fleets cast their nets off the African coast."Fisheries agreements allow the EU to benefit from African fishing stocks, and not the local population," said Randzio-Plath.

The EU does pay compensation to states that give European fishing vessels access to their waters and fish stocks. Senegal, for example, receives about 16 million euros per year, Mozambique a little over 4 million and Mauritania, 86 million euros. But according to the World Wildlife Fund, the market value of these catches is usually significantly higher than the compensation. In addition, coastal fishermen also lose their livelihood.

MEP Neuser is also critical of the various economic partnership agreements that the EU is currently negotiating with the ACP states. "There is definitely a need for some counseling in this area, since the policies that we're negotiating there aren't very fair for the developing countries."

Fish sellers in Mauritania
After the EU fishing fleets have taken what they need, not much is left for localsImage: picture alliance/Robert Harding World Imagery

The EU has stated that partnership agreements are meant to encourage development in the ACP countries. But according to aid agencies, the opposite is the case. "In their current form, economic partnership agreements are far-reaching free trade agreements which mainly benefit European exporters."

The partnership agreements would require African countries to open their markets to European exports. They would also liberalize the service sector, allowing European investors to get involved in projects supplying services like drinking water, for example. But examples from other regions have shown this usually leads to price increases, without much improvement in quality.

Elites must take responsibility

But lack of coherent policy from the EU is only one side of the coin. The "failure of the elite" in many African countries cannot be pinned on Europe's development policies, said Neuser, giving the "negative example" of Nigeria. "It's a very rich country thanks to its oil reserves, but enormous amounts are disappearing and the elites are unbearably rich," he said.

The EU must "confront the elites floating on their oil fields and raking in the money," said Neuser. One way it could help would be to assist with the development of efficient tax systems. The EU could also contribute by closing its many tax havens, stemming the flight of capital from Africa.

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