If you are interested in development cooperation and development effectiveness, then you will surely want to know about how the EU has programmed €15 billion in 74 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Programming the European Development Fund (EDF) is a major political, policy and bureaucratic challenge, and a critical test on EU’s capacity to deliver on its “high-impact aid agenda”. A myriad of actors are involved in the process: 28 EU countries, the European External Action Service, the European Commission, the European Parliament and 74 governments from the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of states.
EU aid is highly concentrated
The EU has effectively implemented two of its key commitments for high impact aid. More funds (nearly 81%) are directed to least developed countries and low-income countries, and EU aid now concentrates on a limited number of sectors per country. The 11th EDF has a strong focus on sustainable agriculture and energy, which together account for 40% of funds. The “governance sector” receives around one third of the funds with particular attention to public financial management issues – although this also includes general budget support financing. The transport sector has fallen out of grace, with only 10% of funds allocated to it (compared to 25% under the 10th EDF). At the aggregate level the 11th EDF meets the political target of spending at least 20% in social sectors, yet only half of ACP countries include one social sector within their 3 priority choices.
In practice, country ownership is difficult to honor
We found that EDF programming is largely aligned to countries national development plans. However, we also gathered strong evidence that programming followed a very top-down approach. Sector choices were largely made at Headquarter level, even if this meant overruling country priorities and the recommendations of EU Delegations. Although civil society organisations were consulted in the programming processes, the outcomes of such consultations rarely guided sector choices. As a result, development effectiveness principles were eroded.
Knowledge was not a major driver in programming choices
A top-down approach to programming also meant that in-depth knowledge of country contexts and sector specificities was not always a key driver in decision-making. We are not saying that EU’s sector choices are not relevant in terms of addressing country development needs—they are—but this does not necessarily mean that they are the best choices in terms of delivering results, where a more informed political economy analysis may well have helped decision making.
Sector concentration may not be the best strategy for high impact aid
Focusing on a limited number of sectors, in theory, allows for a more strategic use of resources. Yet this assumption does not always materialise in practice. The quality and results delivered by an intervention don’t only depend on the financial volume but rather on the particularities of the sector and country context. Also, sector choices are still largely dependent on donor priorities rather than on a holistic division of labour that meets country needs. As a result, sector concentration can lead to many perverse effects (e.g. sector saturation, aid inefficiency and opportunity costs). A few donors are already exploring alternative programming approaches (e.g. results-oriented, thematic or multi-sectoral). The EU could engage in an evidence-based debate on whether the current sector programming approach still fits in with the results-based agenda.
Towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
There may be a need to revise the EU’s differentiation and aid allocation criteria to take into account the geography of global poverty and incorporate more nuanced indicators that take into account sub-national differences, such as inequalities. Moreover, future EU aid programming processes may need to place even further emphasis on analysing the added value of EU aid in different contexts and how aid fits in with partner country strategies for transition towards sustainable development, and mobilising the funding that is needed. Ensuring that EU aid (including that from Member States) contributes to supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the country level may require an integrated approach to programming that supports the three pillars of sustainable development—the economy, the ecology and equity—more consistently and holistically.
Still missing: a more realistic, political and visionary agenda to deliver global public goods
The issue of “doing more with less” needs to be looked at beyond just reducing costs, at a more strategic level. First, because success in delivering high-quality and high-impact aid will depend on whether the EU is equipped to deliver on its ambitions. But ambitions may need to be revised by looking carefully at how the EU’s international cooperation fits within the EU’s broader (and more political and interest-driven) external action agenda in partner countries. Adopting a more politically-informed approach will need the presence of multiple stakeholders in Europe and developing countries to robustly hold it to account. This is a precondition to ensure that a more realistic yet politically visionary agenda for sustainable development is pursued, but not one that is driven by the short-term political, economic and security self-interests of the EU.