In the last fifteen years the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have helped to raise hundreds of millions out of poverty. As the world’s biggest donor to overseas aid, the European Union has played a huge role. Its commitment to achieving the MDGs over the period 2004-2012 has seen European programmes immunise 18.3 million children against measles, provide drinking water to over 70 million, and connect more than 24.5 million people to sanitation facilities. And it has shown leadership, launching its own MDG initiative in 2010 to help tackle the targets most off track.
But as we near the MDGs’ expiry date later this year the world faces unprecedented challenges in international development. At the end of 2014 the United Nations stated it was dealing with level three emergencies, the classification it uses to denote the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises, in four countries. For the first time since WWII, the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide has exceeded 50 million. Meanwhile, scientists have recently announced that, whatever actions we now take, the seas will rise by at least five metres. And without drastic cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions – more radical in fact, than anything currently being discussed – a rise of more than 20 metres will rapidly become inescapable. The challenges are enormous and they range from climate change to conflict, from energy to food security.
These are global issues which require imminent and united action. Lucky then – that 2015 offers the opportunity to respond. Not only will we see world leaders come together in September to announce the new post-2015 development agenda, the UN Climate Change Summit will follow shortly after in December. And in just a few days’ time, we’ll see world leaders discuss how to finance all of this, at the third international conference on financing for development.
Clearly, the scale of the response needed is huge. With 28 member states to support it, the EU should be in a fantastic position to react. Certainly the EU is unique in that, unlike other bodies such as the UN or the OECD, it has the ability to legislate and to enforce its policy. It can leverage financial resources from members that might otherwise deliver far less and this vast budget enables it to engage further and deeper, thus enabling it to fund huge infrastructure projects. Over the last decade for instance, the EU has helped construct and maintain some 87000 km of roads. And it has a truly global reach, its presence being particularly important, for example, in fragile states and forgotten crises, as in Niger. This pooled spending also creates efficiencies, reducing the administrative burdens of in-country reporting on aid, the risk of duplication, or indeed the risk of gaps.
The EU is also viewed as distinct from its members, allowing it to rise above enduring historic tensions, so boosting its ability to deal with issues such as democracy and human rights. Perhaps most crucially the EU offers the potential for joined up thinking in international development. By virtue of its very being, it can combine aid measures with diplomacy, armed force or economic tools such as trade policy. And as the main trading partner for many of the countries with which it works on development, it can have real impact. For instance on, issues like tax dodging, estimated to lose developing countries $160 billion a year, there is far more scope for the EU to make headway than one country alone, which would risk simply moving tax dodgers on to places with weaker regulations and tax authorities. This makes it well positioned to face up to development challenges increasingly global in nature.
But is the EU capitalising on all of this? The answer is no. There are three main EU institutions with duties around international development. These include DG International Cooperation and Development and the European External Action Service (EEAS). Many NGOs are concerned that these departments are competing rather than cooperating. There are also fears that development policy is subordinate to foreign policy. For instance, the membership body Bond, who represent over 440 charities, have stated that in areas like the Sahel and the Horn of Africa “EU foreign policy is turning a blind eye to poverty eradication,” with antiterrorism and security operations advanced with “little consideration to long term development efforts”.
And the EU is failing to exploit its main strength here – the ability to weave development initiatives into other policy areas – a huge benefit given the interlinked nature of many current development challenges. The Lisbon Treaty affirms the EU’s commitment to “Policy Coherence for Development” (PCD), requiring it to ensure that policy takes development objectives into account. But this is low on the agenda and there is no formal mechanism to guarantee collaboration on PCD issues between the Commission Directorates-General and the EEAS, which is meant to lead on it. As such the potential for progress is reliant on individual Commissioners. In the meantime damage is being done. In the area of fishing for example, boats subsidised under the Common Fisheries Policy are operating in the waters around developing countries, where they source almost a quarter of their catch. This is damaging local livelihoods by raising the price of fish and reducing employment.
If the EU truly wants to be taken seriously as a normative power, it has to lead by example. It must recommit to its promise to spend 0.7% of EU Gross National Income on overseas aid, a target on which it is currently falling short by 0.28%. And it must wield its influence in fora like the G8 and the G20 to far better effect. Like its overall support for international development, initiatives such as the Commission’s “2015 European Year for Development” demonstrate support for the cause, but we need 2015 to be the year that the EU puts its money where its mouth is.