EU must step up fight against ‘donor fatigue’

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Series Details Vol.7, No.21, 24.5.01, p12
Publication Date 24/05/2001
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Date: 24/05/01

The world came to Brussels last week to talk about development and, as External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten argues, Europe was able to show it a thing or two about how to make aid pay

THE dire economic situation of the world's poorest countries was discussed at last week's Third UN Conference on the Least- Developed Countries in Brussels.

There is a growing recognition that things have not been changing for the better. To give one bleak example, despite decades of development aid in Africa, the income of the average African was lower in 1997 than it was in 1970. Such depressing statistics have fuelled what has become known as donor fatigue.

Aid from the 22 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Development Assistance Committee declined for most of the 1990s, reaching a record low of 0.22% of donors' combined gross national product in 2000.

The record of EU member states is hardly better (0.34%), though higher than that of the US (around 0.11%).

The widely-felt despair that things will ever improve in recipient countries is having a corrosive effect on people's attitudes. They observe that many of these countries suffer from corruption; that external assistance is too often wasted; that there is little to show, after all this time, for the money that has been spent.

Yet the timing of this fatigue and cynicism could not be worse. One fifth of the world's population live on less than €1 per day, while the three richest men have combined assets equalling the output of the world's 48 poorest nations.

The international community must do more to ensure that those who are most in need can also share the benefits of globalisation.

There are two complementary ways of doing this. First, the poorest countries must have better market access to the richer, more developed world. The EU has been a trailblazer here. Its 'Everything But Arms' initiative - recently launched by the Commission - has already abolished quotas and duties on essentially all products except arms from the world's 48 poorest countries.

Second, we have to be not only more generous but also more effective in our aid efforts, to ensure that aid is carefully targeted and delivered on time.

The European Commission has worked hard to put its own house in order.

Reform was long overdue: chronic staff shortages, excessively complex administrative procedures, unclear and divided responsibilities - all conspired to defeat the best efforts of those involved.

So one year ago, almost to the day, the Commission adopted a communication on reform of its external assistance. Member states have supported us in our reform effort. They have recognised their co-responsibility for a situation where attention was focussed on the announcement of aid pledges rather than on the actual delivery of aid.

Member states are moreover well aware that we can often make more impact by pooling our resources instead of implementing 15 national programmes, sometimes competing or overlapping.

The reform has four main arms: to overhaul and improve programming of projects; to unify and streamline the whole project cycle under a new EuropeAid Cooperation Office; to reform the way more than 50 committees involving member states supervise the launch of programmes; and to devolve responsibilities to those on the ground - to the Commission representations abroad and to the partner countries themselves.

The backbone of this reform is already in place. A new quality support group is working to ensure that project programming in the EU fits into a coherent strategy and maximises the impact of our aid. EuropeAid has been up and running since 1 January and is aggressively recruiting the first wave of additional staff that has been agreed by the Council and the European Parliament.

We have secured member states' acceptance that the committees of their representatives should concentrate on defining priorities and strategies rather than trying to micro-manage individual projects. But it is results which matter. I am convinced that we still need more people on the ground with authority and expertise to provide well-targeted assistance and to act immediately if things start going wrong.

We all know the story of EC rehabilitation and development aid being delivered several years after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America (the humanitarian aid was there immediately). This is why we have decided to devolve more responsibilities to our delegations on the ground. In 2001, 23 delegations will take part in the first wave of this exercise which will cover all our delegations by the end of 2003.

The most recent example of the Commission's new approach is in Serbia, where the watchwords of our reforms - timely delivery, quality, and decentralisation - have been much in evidence.

Following the dramatic overthrow of dictatorship in Serbia, an emergency assistance programme of €180 million was formally agreed by the Commission on 8 November 2000 concentrating on energy support over the winter, medicines and food. The first deliveries of fuel arrived just three days later. Contracts were signed for the delivery of some 144,000 tonnes of fuel to Serbia, and virtually all of it has already been delivered. In addition, assistance for electricity imports covered 70% of Serbia's electricity import needs during the winter.

Day-to-day decisions are best made by those on the ground, and on 8 January 2001, the European Agency for Reconstruction opened an office in Belgrade and took over the implementation of the EU's assistance programme in Serbia.

Well thought-out, decentralised aid delivered on time - EU efforts in Serbia provide a template for future action in other parts of the world and other recent initiatives are showing encouraging results. We reacted quickly to India's earthquake, with humanitarian assistance worth €13 million, and we set up an on-the-spot coordination with member states to ensure the European aid efforts were complementary and effective.

When the Palestinian Authority was under serious difficulties due to the economic blockade imposed by Israel, we were ready to help with some €120 million budgetary assistance at short notice.

Rome wasn't built in a day. We face a long hard slog to turn things round. But we have shown that, with political will and hard work, aid can make a difference.

Major feature by the European Commissioner for External Relations on the EU's reform of its external assistance procedures and mechanisms.

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