Thinking Post Development:
Sense and Non-sense of European Development Cooperation

Sense and Non-sense of European Development Cooperation

By Glenn Rayp, August 12th 2019

Recently, Jan Orbie and Sarah Delputte published a remarkable and interesting opinion in which they give good and convincing arguments for the abolishment of the position of the European commissioner of development. In an attempt to strengthen their point, I develop and discuss in this brief comment what I consider as the most important objections that could be raised.

Reculer pour mieux sauter ?

At face value, Orbie and Delputte’s proposal may unite left and right, though for quite opposite motives. Political right-wingers could consider it as an opportunity to scale down the European bureaucratic apparatus, in particular in a field about which they are skeptical anyway. Left-wing leaning politicians may agree from their disappointment with the European development policy to which Orbie and Delputte point so accurately.  However, Orbie and Delputte are motivated by the ambition of a better development policy: getting rid of the hypocrisy to pave the way for a genuine development cooperation policy at the European level. One may ask whether strategically this is the best thing to do.  Wouldn’t we end up precisely with the strengthening of the tendencies they criticize?  Budgets, staff, projects risk to be entirely subsumed under other policy priorities (e.g. the security agenda). As shown by the present administration in the US, removing (or not nominating) people is the best way to neutralize a policy.

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing (and I am not quite sure that I know that)” ?

Orbie and Delputte point to the absence of a clear development paradigm of the Commission. Ambiguities and empty buzzwords abound to hide a lack of vision and content. The European Consensus on Development is likened to a kitsch Christmas tree. Few would indeed be optimistic about this document, but more in general, are the priorities in development policy that unclear? In particular the new experimental approach of development policy gives quite reliable and pragmatic indications about what works and what does not. From a more aggregate perspective, it is found that institutional quality and capacity building especially of the poorest, are the key determinants of economic development (which the ANC in South-Africa seems to have remembered right on time). Therefore, isn’t it a matter of political will and pressure to get the priorities in development cooperation right, irrespective of the specific agenda?  Wouldn’t institutions and capacity have a central position in the still-in-development paradigm of the post-development agenda as well, such that waiting for a new paradigm to define the development policy is an unnecessary loss of time?

“Panta rhei” ?

In many situations, conditioning is reciprocal. While development policy may be conditioned by the safety agenda of the Union and its strategic interests, the opposite is valid as well: no safety (or European influence) without development. This compels the Union to take development seriously lest countries may drag their feet in cooperating with the Union in other agendas. Even if its consequences are sometimes a source of concern (from the point of view of inclusive development), the increasing presence of China (or Russia) in the developing countries has strengthened their bargaining position with regard to the European Union.  This might oblige the Union to step-up its efforts in development cooperation (amongst others). On the other hand, no country has ever been able to develop through aid (alone). For the better or the worse, the impact of international trade, investment and migration on development is considered to be much stronger.  For example, remittances are the second source of capital flows to poor or lower-middle income countries.  Moreover, they avoid the efficiency and equity loss of proceeding by national bureaucracies of uneven integrity, as might be the case with other flows.  Every development strategy is likely to include a link with (safe, orderly and regularly) migration, international trade and investment.  From this perspective, coordination between development cooperation and international trade policy might be unavoidable. Different agendas have an “organic” connection that is difficult to ignore, e.g. social rights and climate protection are issues of common interest to development cooperation and trade treaties.

“I have a dream”

It might be the consequence of a multipolar world with no clear hegemon, capable of imposing its vision on the rest of the world that individual regional powers increasingly act in function of their national interest (ignoring the common good) and aim at optimizing their policy in function thereof. It is the consciousness of its weakness in this multipolar world that has led Europe to reassess its policy and to take a more assertive international stance, which implied the subjugation of development cooperation to interests, considered to be more vital.

Perhaps that development cooperation, to isolate it from the misuse in function of other agendas, should be lifted to a higher (global ?) level funded by institutionally anchored national contributions and managed by donor and receiving countries, as a global public good. It might be the way to realize at last the commitment to allocate 0.7% of GDP to official development cooperation and to restore the coordination between nation-states policies that is so badly needed to meet the challenges of the 21st


The author is professor International Economics at Department of Economics/ SHERPPA-ITIM, Ghent University.


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