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Sharing the EU's Experience of Transition

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16 December 2013

Transition, which can be described as the radical reform of a country’s society and economy, is still a very new concept in development policy. In this interview Jean Bossuyt, the Head of Strategy at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), shares his thoughts on why transition is important and how the European Union can play an enabling role.

During the European Development Days 2013, a session was organised on Support for Sustainable Change post-2015, focusing on how partner countries can capitalise on European experiences in transition management. Mr Bossuyt attended this session, and here he speaks about some of the key points addressed. 


Question: What is transition?

Jean Bossuyt: Transition is a rather new topic; it is a latecomer, but also a most welcome baby, I would say, in Commission policies. 

The basic idea is to say that in the coming years many countries will pass through difficult transformations, as they try to take a qualitative jump forward, attacking the structural problems that make them poor. This is called transition: it is a radical transformation of a country’s society, of its economy, and that is why this kind of complex reform also needs what they call transition support to accompany the transition. 

We have seen this take place before our eyes. We have the case, of course, of the Arab countries (Egypt, Tunisia), but also other countries like Myanmar coming out of 25 years of dictatorship and South Sudan, a new country. These countries have enormous transition agendas, transformation agendas that entail more than just development programs; they are big reforms.

Therefore, the European Union is now looking at how we can help these countries embarking on such a very dangerous adventure to carry out these big reforms. The reason is that transitions are of course very risky, they can fail, but also we Europeans can offer something. Our Eastern European countries, which were formerly part of the communist bloc, went through such transitions only 15 years ago, and they were quite successful transforming into democracies and market economies. So we can also provide specific technical expertise to transition countries on how to manage these kind of reforms. That’s the agenda.

Question: Why was this session on ‘Support for Sustainable Change post-2015’ important?

It raised the profile, I think, of the idea of transition countries, because if you were to ask anyone in this room, it’s not really a common concept yet. It hasn’t been internalised (and the idea of Fragile States is much more popular). We are still stretching to define which countries can be defined as transition ones. Remember the Eastern European countries, which had to transform everything at once? They had to immediately do democracy, market reforms, etc, in one go and in one push so that they could access Europe. 

So this was an enormous transition, but how do we define transition countries in the developing world?



You have the obvious cases of the Arab Spring, but what about a country such as Ghana, that has been evolving slowly over the last 20 years – is that a country in transition? I don’t know. So even the definition of which countries are perceived to be in transition is not yet fully clear. Hence, it will be a challenge to further define what we are talking about when we speak about transition societies. 


That’s just one challenge, but we discussed others too. A second issue, which is also quite important, is if we support countries in transition, transition to where, what kind of transition? For instance in Africa now, it’s quite popular for governments to ask for economic transformation. Africa must industrialise, and they want economic growth. However, is that all that Europe wants to support? If we look at the 2015 agenda, it’s all about inclusive development and not just economic growth. So where do politics come in? What about governance and human rights? In some of these African countries going for transition, you don’t see really the governance and human rights elements. So if the European Union is asked to support a transition, will they only support the economic side, or will they also insist on democracy, human rights, and governance? 

This risks being quite difficult, since many African countries are now a bit fed up of what they call the ‘interference’ of Europe, the normative approach, and they have other examples: China, India, and Brazil. Europe has lost a bit of its power, its convincing power. So what will we do with this fundamental democratic and governance agenda?

There was also a speaker here from the European Democracy Fund, who clearly said that transitions will not work without citizens, democracy, and human rights. So we will have to dialogue with our partner countries to decide on what type of transition we want to jointly embark on; and that will sometimes be a ‘hot potato’ I think.



Mr Bossuyt went on to speak about the support modalities for transition listing three implementation challenges:

  1. Demand for reform and support in transition countries, so as not to have too much of an offer from Europe which is not suitable for what these countries need.
  2. What type of expertise can really deliver this?
  3. Organising the exchange: mobilising the expertise and then placing it in conditions that can be effective. 

Question: Looking forward to the post-2015 agenda, what do you think is the most important priority?

I have a very simple answer to concretise the notion of ‘inclusive development’, and for me it is the fight against inequalities. Last year, the World Development Forum clearly said that inequality is the major global risk of the 21st century. You see it in Europe, you see it in the world and we are not tackling it in those African countries that are making enormous economic transformations based mainly on minerals. If we don’t tackle the inequality issue we will lose social cohesion, we will have conflicts. We already saw this in the Arab Spring; it was all about dignity, social inclusion. So my answer is inequality, inequality, inequality.

You can watch a recorded version of the session Support for Sustainable Change post-2015 on the EDDs website. The panellists were:

•Andris Piebalgs, EU Commissioner for Development

•Jerzy Pomianowski, Executive Director, European Endowment for Democracy

•Julia Duncan-Cassell, Minister for Gender and Development, Liberia

•Neris Germanas, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lithuania

•Sufian Ahmed, Minister for Finance and Economic Development, Ethiopia

•Dr Leonidas Donskis, Member of the Development Committee, European Parliament - Moderator

For more information on transition you can also visit the Group on Support and Expertise on Transition Processes

This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Jean Bossuyt with support from the Coordination Team.


DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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