Ahead of the fourth OECD High level forum on Aid Effectiveness, the European Commission continues to push for more streamlined, accountable aid programmes, while critics accuse the EU of watering down its ambitions for development.
The forum (HLF4), which takes place in Busan, South Korea, between 29 November and 1 December, will, in addition to addressing the general effects of aid effectiveness in the developing world, will also seek to strengthen partnerships between developing countries, emerging economies, donor countries, NGOs and the private sector.
As well as being billed as the most important international development for some time, the commission is also keen to highlight its inclusiveness. According to the commission, two main points will dominate the agenda: a refocus on commitments already made to aid effectiveness, and ensuring democratic ownership.
The first looks at improving the impact of aid and deliver accountability to the taxpayer, seen as increasingly important in these economic times, while the second aims to guarantee transparency, and the predictability of assistance. “In these difficult financial times, aid effectiveness is more important than ever. It is vital that taxpayer's money goes to where it is needed most in the most efficient way. That is why we’re doing all we can to work closely with developing countries and other partners on the ground,” the spokesperson for Development Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, told New Europe, while behind the scenes there is cautious optimism that the commission can contribute positively to the ongoing debate, and reduce the “fragmentation” of aid, by broadening the agenda and actors taking part to the widest possible variety of partners.
This approach is not without its critics, who see private sector involvement as counterproductive, and who demand to know exactly who speaks for the big corporations, however the commission is keen to have as wide a partnership base as possible (although there has been mixed success with getting some of the foundations on board); insisting that “we are trying to get them round to our agenda,” and that no one gets to the table without having established a firm corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme first.
Perhaps more controversially, the commission is also keen to enhance, as it puts it, “democratic ownership” of aid by continuing to peruse its policy of budget support, and “the use of country systems.” Essentially, this means providing money directly for government’s to work on specific projects, for example, in education. Recipients are only eligible for this kind of support upon provision of thorough plans and the guarantee of transparent auditing procedures, however, not everyone is convinced, not least within the commission itself; Piebalgs is said to be more cautious than predecessor Louis Michel about the policy’s possible success rate.
Despite the apparent confidence, not everyone is convinced that the EU is in a position to deliver on its promises. A recent open letter sent by CONCORD, the European development NGO confederation, accused member states of weakening their collective ambitions. “EU member states provide around half of global aid and the world's poorest people and EU citizens will therefore rightly be looking for EU Governments to lead donor efforts at HLF4 to agree to ambitious action to maximise the development impact of their aid,” read the letter.
“Such action must of course focus on making aid programmes more transparent and effectively scrutinised... it must also focus on tackling a range of practices that undermine aid’s long term impacts and potential for helping countries to end their dependence on it. These include tied aid, unpredictable aid, inappropriate use of conditions, the bypassing of local systems and approaches to aid that fail to strengthen democratic ownership and gender equality.
“Unfortunately,” it continues, “the EU’s common position for HLF4 contains few concrete proposals in these areas. In addition a number of EU member states have been prominent in opposing ambitious proposals made by others on these issues, using a lack of ambition from the likes of new donors such as China as an excuse. This lack of political leadership is in stark contrast to that displayed by the EU at the Accra HLF in 2008 and is likely to undermine the success of HLF4.”
The commission, however, is standing on its record as the world’s largest overseas aid donor, and insists that ambition has not been diminished. “The European Commission is already amongst the most transparent and effective donors.” says Piebalgs’ spokesperson. “We help to reduce poverty in over 150 countries. Yet better coordination amongst European donors could help to save around €5 billion per year.”
“In Busan, [the commissioner] will be calling for donors to better coordinate their actions to avoid duplication, fragmentation and to achieve better impact. With just over three years left to meet the Millennium Development Goals, time is running out. Busan will be a key opportunity for all donors to act together to improve the efficiency of aid.”