Thinking Post Development:
Let’s abolish the EU commissioner for development

Let's Abolish the EU Commissioner for Development

By Jan Orbie and Sarah Delputte, August 7th 2019

Development policy is more and more subordinated to geopolitical and economic agendas. If the EU really cares about international solidarity, it better cleans up its own internal social and democratic deficits and engages in a real dialogue on post-development policy, argue Jan Orbie and Sarah Delputte.

Development policy has been conspicuously absent in debates on the European Parliament elections. This may be surprising given the enormous budgets (more than €10 billion annually), extensive manpower (more than 3000 officials in DG Devco), high ambitions (including the Sustainable Development Goals), historical role (since the EU’s creation in 1957) and significant impact of the EU on the weal and woe of people in the Global South. Moreover, as quite a bit goes wrong with EU aid, which continues to be highly bureaucratic without clear measurable impact, this policy field seems a goldmine for populist exploitation. Unfortunately, however, development policy remains overly remote in debates on the future of Europe.

Let’s therefore spur some serious reflection on the need for a European development policy by a concrete and bold proposal: the abolishment of the position of a Development Commissioner and of the separate Directorate General on Development Cooperation. Following Brexit, we will anyhow have to live with one Commissioner less. But there are also some more fundamental reasons to consider this.

First, development is already more and more subordinated to other priorities. In the name of coherence, comprehensiveness and effectiveness, the European External Action Service has increasingly laid hold of EU budgets. Geopolitically important countries, most notably in the neighbourhood, receive more EU aid than the least-developed. Aid is also instrumentalized for migration management purposes, for instance through the Migration Trust Fund (created in 2015) that violates development principles of poverty reduction and partner country ownership. Moreover, EU aid is also increasingly used for leveraging private investment through blending, for instance through the European Fund for Sustainable Development created in 2017. While the EU keeps on paying lip service to the 0.7% aid commitment, private finance (in the form of blending, investment or remittances) is the new Holy Grail.

Over the past decades the Development Commissioner has evolved from a powerhouse in Brussels towards an emperor without clothes. A ‘hard Devxit’ therefore has the benefit of clarity. If development policy is mainly a question of geopolitics, migration policy, trade or neighborhood relations, it is better to recognize this and no longer pretend as if a separate development policy for poverty reduction were necessary. Meanwhile, emergency aid for people affected by natural or man-made disasters may continue under the Humanitarian Aid Commissioner and the DG ECHO.

Second, the whole idea of doing development needs to be revisited. It is hard to find a clear paradigm behind today’s development policy anyway, as exemplified by the many ambiguities in EU discourse: more aid and beyond aid, more public and more private sector, more poverty reduction and more migration-related aid… We experiment with blending, trust funds and other jargon that covers up the absence of a coherent story about (the road to) development. The ‘new’ European Consensus on Development of 2017 looks like a gaudy Christmas tree: for all tastes but mainly ugly. Officially the EU practices the SDGs, together with some other bells and whistles like migration and human rights, but above all, the numerous goals and indicators illustrate the lack of a clear vision. A more fundamental problem is that, while the 2030 Agenda is defined as a universal responsibility, it implicitly promotes the western recipe of development via economic growth and liberalization and fails to provide an alternative paradigm.

The political and social-economic challenges in Europe and the US, the multipolar world, the growing assertiveness of African countries, the increasing inequality within and between countries, and the climate crisis create pressure for a more existential questioning of the western growth model. Activists, academics and policy makers increasingly question what ‘development’ is and how it should be pursued. It is difficult to abide by the TINA slogan (‘There Is No Alternative’). Although ‘post-development’ has not (yet) led to one coherent challenging paradigm, it hosts a wide variety of fascinating alternative visions to development.

So what can the EU do? First, put European interventions via aid and other instruments on hold for a while. Second, sit down and listen. Engage in a real dialogue about alternatives to development (instead of development alternatives) with less arrogance. Third, tackle the negative impact of EU trade, investment, taxation, agriculture and migration policies on third countries. Fourth, force structural reforms in global governance at the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF and other organizations. Fifth, let’s thoroughly reflect on our own social and democratic issues that give rise to pretty existential questions about the ‘European model’. Only then, a ‘Post-Development Commissioner’ could possibly enter into new relations with the Global South.


The authors are respectively Associate Professor and Assistant Professor at the Centre for EU Studies, Ghent University.


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