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Embargo: 18h00

Speech by Mr. Poul Nielson

Commissioner for development

The future of Development Cooperation

Vienna, 15 December 1999

It is a pleasure and honour for me to be invited to the presentation of this important book on the "Future of Development Cooperation" of my friend State Secretary Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

It is rare that politicians in office find the time to pass on their experiences in a book published while they are still in office. Some do, and get into trouble! However, the messages in this book deserve to come out now.

Let me start by saying that I know its author well from our common time in the Council of Development Ministers. I am not surprised to see that you, Benita, have reflected on your work. By practising "development co-operation" as a politician one is constantly called upon to strike a balance between the two extreme attitudes between "illusion" and "cynicism". This is particularly important when you deal with the future.

Your book, I think, confirms my perception of your position: you are neither following illusions nor has your experience with development work made you a cynic. Rather, I would describe you as a realist with a vision.

With that general remark, let me briefly comment on each of the five challenges you rightly point to in your book.

First, making clear to the public the importance of development cooperation. You have rightly mentioned that most industrialised countries do not live up to the expectations of the world community as far as their contribution to development is concerned. Globalisation is fast increasing this gap.

And yet more and more people in industrialised countries realise that we live in a world of shared risks of planetary disease, environmental degradation and international financial crisis.

I think any Austrian village facing a comparative amount of serious problems would get organised and face the problems. Maybe the villagers would even start a collect of funds to finance joint solutions.

This is not happening at the global level, or at least not in a manner which is proportional to the problems. Why? Because we still do not have a global village, no international community! We're trying to create one. It is simply impossible to image a normal village with an inequity similar to the global reality. Imagine one villager home-shopping on the Internet for grocery delivery while surrounded by starving neighbours.

If this is not enough to give development co-operation legitimacy, let me add two more reasons:

One, following the "Battle of Seattle" it is clear that the future benefits of continued trade liberalisation cannot be reaped without some compensation for the marginalised. While free trade without any doubt leads to global growth, there will on balance - be severe negative consequences in certain sectors, certain countries and maybe even certain continents. The point is that the gains of the winners are sufficient to more than compensate the losers. If only we could get organised.

Two, it would be an illusion to believe that Europe or for that matter any industrialised country could stay an island of freedom, wealth and democracy, if rewards of politics and globalisations are not shared in the future.

I do believe public opinion is receptive to issues of global development and to the fate of the deprived billions. Tangible and spectacular facts and events even make it to the front pages of major European newspapers. In September, for instance, the growth of world population beyond six billion people and the consequences for mankind was featured. In October the organisation "Medecins sans frontières" received the Nobel Prize for peace for its humanitarian and development work in support of victims of war and natural catastrophes.

This attention to the issues gives us every day the chance to make the public understand the importance of development policy. But it will lead to despair rather than action unless politicians contribute to bridge the increasing gap our citizens perceive between what they know and see is happening in the world, and what they perceive they can do about it. The so-called "donor fatigue" is very much a result of information overload unmatched by quality responses.

It is also extremely important to make the public understand that development co-operation is more than transfer of financial resources to the poor. This is reflected in the new organisation of the Commission. The portfolio for which I am responsible goes well beyond project delivery. Ensuring that the interests of the developing countries are taken into account covers a much wider range of issues like debt, investment, agriculture, environment, the role of the World Bank and trade. It is quite a challeng e to deliver a coherent policy across all these areas.

Of course, the Commission's Directorate-General for Development does not lead on all these issues, nor is the interests of the developing countries necessarily the first concern of the Commission, the Council or the Parliament. I have my doubts as to whether the conflict between for example domestic agricultural interests and our support to rural development policies in the developing countries can be solved as long as the conflict continue to exist within Member States.

Furthermore, when speaking of coherence, there is an important distinction to be made. The EU policy towards the rest of the world may be either intentionally or unintentionally incoherent. Unintentional incoherence is a failure of the system that has to be corrected as soon as possible. The situation is more problematic where we are aware that incoherence is inevitable. Examples can be found in both trade and agricultural policy. We are perfectly aware of it but this lack of coherence often reflects similar dilemmas in and between the Member States. I see it as my role to draw the attention of Member States and the European Parliament to the fact when the lack of coherence affects the developing countries.

Let me turn to your second theme, namely finding the right partners for development cooperation. When and why is joint European development co-operation a reasonable choice? I am working on the presentation of a clearer definition of the Commission's areas of strength, that will enhance complementarity with bilateral programmes like the Austrian. In short, the specificity of the Community's assistance compared to most bilateral donors can be described in terms of:

  • its above-average volume and "critical mass", pointing towards measures in the areas of infrastructure, macro-economic aid policies and food security;

  • the Community's widespread geographical presence, implying certain representative tasks and symbolising a European commitment in parts of the world that most bilateral donors are inclined or obliged to give lesser priority;

  • the fact that through the Commission the Union operates as a Community. This has a quality in itself. Community aid should serve as a means of conveying European values and as a symbol of cooperation and stability. It is always well received. Even more so where we can work together with the Member States.

But it has to be made more efficient. I have listened carefully to your words about the complex rules and the long preparatory process for projects of the Commission. I share your concern. Reform is urgently needed. I was amazed to see how, on a monthly basis, officials from all Member States come together in Brussels to deliberate in 11 languages with full translation on every single new development project to be launched by the Union. Even the smallest project is subject to an ex ante scrutiny by officials from Member States.

If the Commission can win your trust and positive assessment of what we achieve where it matters in the field maybe we could acquire greater flexibility and less bureaucracy in the preparatory process. And then concentrate our discussions with Member States on policy issues. This would enable us to do even better.

Having put our own house in order we should forcefully express our expectations that the countries we support manage financial resources in an accountable and reasonable manner. This is one of the central elements in the on-going negotiations between the EU and 71 Countries from Africa, the Caribbeans and the Pacific, the so-called EU/ACP negotiations on the successor agreement to the Lomé convention. A breakthrough in these negotiations was achieved last week. We have come very close to an agreement laying down stringent rules on good governance and especially on the fight against corruption in developing countries. This is without precedence in the world.

Your third challenge, namely to find the balance between the respect of traditional state sovereignty and the enforcement of internationally recognised principles, is equally central.

I think development co-operation basically is about how to achieve social change. And change will always be politically sensitive. Sometimes it implies supporting certain groupings or organisations in civil society. We should not be afraid to engage in a controversial policy dialogue with our partners in the developing countries. This dialogue is one of the benefits of development co-operation, and some disagreement is inevitable.

In the context of development co-operation, a set of "internationally recognised principles" were adopted by consensus in the round of global United Nations conferences held in Rio, Cairo, Copenhagen, Vienna and Beijing. We should not be too shy of being accused of interference to the extent that we can honestly claim to be pursuing these objectives.

Furthermore, you rightly mention the sustainability of development projects as your fourth challenge. This is indeed a highly relevant challenge for the Commission. To put it in a quite simplistic manner: The Commission builds or rehabilitates a lot of roads. We also used to give a lot of food aid. With growing population pressure, roads are being used beyond their capacity and the demand for food is steadily growing. Under these conditions, how will we ever be able to make our support superfluous?

Like most progressive donors, the Commission will increasingly focus on the necessary capacity-building and transfer of knowledge to local institutions as an integral part of any support in these areas. To do this, we need to maintain a minimum of continuity is our interventions. Long term partnerships, such as those under the Lomé conventions, are important elements of sustainability.

Finally, staying realistic is the fifth challenge you mention. Development is indeed first of all about human development it is about human beings. Dealing with human beings implies giving up the illusion of perfection. But it also excludes cynicism and hopelessness as and option. Visionary realism is the answer. Your book clearly gets that message across.

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