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Views from the Field: In conversation with the EU Ambassador to South Africa

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9 June 2016

Last October, Marcus Cornaro left the Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO) to take up a new post as Ambassador and Head of the EU Delegation to South Africa. In this interview he shares some of the challenges of working in a graduating country and how South Africa can serve as an example to the region.


After 17 years working for the Austrian Foreign Service, which included postings in Mali, Zimbabwe and Uganda, Marcus Cornaro joined the European Commission (EC) in 2000. He worked in Brussels for DG RELEX (the European Commission’s external relations department) for three years, before moving to Hanoi to take up a post as Head of the EC Delegation to Vietnam. 

Upon returning to Brussels in 2007 Cornaro worked as Director for the European Neighbourhood for five years, covering Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, before being promoted in August 2012 to Deputy Director General of DG DEVCO.

In October 2015 he returned to the field, moving to Pretoria to take up the role of Ambassador to the EU Delegation to South Africa. (C4D): What are the key areas of operation for the delegation?

Marcus Cornaro (MC): Great to be speaking to once again. This is a delegation running cooperation between the European Union and one of its ten strategic partners. So quite understandably beyond a sizeable development programme – which I will detail later – we also have very strong trade and political components; trying to involve South Africa in our broader African discourse. There’s also a healthy growing cooperation on science and technology under Horizon 2020, and then there’s quite a good discussion on the unfinished business of transformation and where Europe can help to underpin current processes.


In the following video, Ambassador Cornaro discusses how the EU Delegation collaborates with Member States present in South Africa. 





C4D: What are the key challenges that delegation staff face working in South Africa, a graduating country?

MC: The challenges remain immense. This interview takes place in Pretoria, and the background looks formidable, but it’s a country with still a lot of poverty. Injustice has not diminished much since the end of Apartheid in ‘94. So there are a lot of tensions, a lot of healthy ongoing discussions across the country on the economic model; the racial issues – which are coming to the fore; huge unemployment, which is still prevalent – particularly among the youth – and how best to address these. And whether addressing these is with redistribution first and then growth, or whether we need to grow first and then use that growth to try and fund reform programmes.

This is where the European Union comes in. We have quite a legacy to build on as an institution that helped fight against apartheid. But of course as Europe we’re also still associated with the local European community, which at that time was also at the fore of fight for the apartheid regime.

Thus we have a mixed role here, and one of my challenges – I would say even one of my passions – is how to position the European Union in this transformation context. And to drive home the message that we continue, I believe, to be South Africa’s most reliable international partner when it comes to longer term investment, and investment linked to job creation skills.

I also believe that we are South Africa’s most reliable partner when it comes to their domestic agenda, which focuses a lot on social service delivery; be it at the national, provincial or municipal level. We are supporting the sharing of experience between Europe and South Africa, for example on how to establish a national health insurance system, which is a difficult but necessary step to be taken. 

In all of that we’re trying to position ourselves as a partner, someone who wishes this country very well, while also realising that the transformation process has yet to be completed. 

C4D: Can you tell us a bit more about the national health insurance programme?

MC: Happy to say a few words on that indeed. This comes out of our current large sectorial involvement, a sector budget support with well targeted measures.  The targeted measures are helping to share best practices between Europe and South Africa on the different funding models you could have. We also run pilot programmes, and through this sector programme invite and associate civil society and think tanks in discussions.

The main challenge with the national health insurance is that currently only 20% of South Africans benefit from health insurance worth speaking about, and from access to what is essentially a very effective, but also very expensive privately run hospital system. 

Most public clinics are dismal and difficult to access. And even if you do manage to access them the services are too low. So the question is how to scoop off some of the inefficiency in the private sector health insurance scheme and pan this out, and through that be able to fund a national health insurance scheme.

For anyone who followed the Obama Care discussion in the United States, this is peanuts compared with the issue here in South Africa. There are many aspects to it, but a lot of them have to do with capacity building. Not just at national level, but also at provincial and municipal levels in order to ensure that the funding and funding models used to finance the national health insurance scheme take root. 

But it’s also one of the programmes where immediately on arrival I sensed that we as the European Union have a lot of positive traction with the Minister – who’s very good by the way; he comes from the profession – and a very good, very dedicated Department of Health. They confirm that if it wasn’t for the support still received from the European Union, plus a few other bilateral donors with whom we cooperate quite well with on that, they would not be able to drive this policy forward. 


In the following video, Ambassador Cornaro discusses how the EU Delegation collaborates with other EU Delegations present in the region. 





C4D: In 2013 DEVCO’s evaluation unit commissioned an evaluation of Budget Support in South Africa. How has the delegation built on the evaluation’s recommendations?

MC: Budget support in South Africa has many interesting lessons worth sharing with our colleagues. It is an area where the treasury is very much involved. The national treasury is shelving the money within its budget to help themselves drive targeted pilot activities. It’s very much used as leverage to fund policy initiatives and to test these policies.

The second aspect for which it’s quite well used is that under the budget support programme the treasury teams up with the relevant ministries, for example health, education and public finance management. They use part of the grant for calls for proposals to invite think tanks, universities and civil society into the fore.

Thirdly it comes with a good dose of quality technical assistance, which goes above what I’ve seen in some other countries. 

So while technically it’s a sectorial budget support programme, in terms of our possibilities to influence the use of the money, it comes closer to what we would call a targeted budget support programme. 

C4D: As a graduating country, how sustainable have the EU’s interventions been in South Africa?

MC: South Africa is a middle-income country (MIC), but unlike some of the other MICs we have not completely discontinued bilateral cooperation. So we have luckily still the possibility to dovetail on previous experiences; something I would recommend to do more systematically with other countries, because it helps to consolidate the legacy left behind. 

In the case of South Africa, over the last two decades we spent 2 billion euros in grants. So it’s good to build and consolidate what we do have. I’ve only been here for six months, so I can’t say that I’ve visited each and every corner of the country, but I’ve travelled quite a bit and I’ve spoken to quite a few beneficiaries and stakeholders. Overall I’m quite impressed with the traction our older programmes have left. 

For example the Office of the Public Protector [Thuli Madonsela] – this is one of the control institutions of the country – recently quite famously took up the President on a corruption scandal. She benefitted some years back from an EU grant, to help her set-up this institution. So when I met her the first thing she said to me was “guys without you in Europe we would have been nowhere in our institution.”

Health is another ongoing programme. We will probably not continue this sector, however, we are seen as having driven and helped the government to pilot reforms, and notably move towards a National Health Insurance Scheme.

Very impressive is the sustainability of our support for basic and secondary education. The Minister and the departments – even at the provincial level – acknowledge that earlier sector programmes and larger funding programmes were absolutely fundamental in helping the government provide basic coverage in schools. For example with suppling text books for primary school students or with curricula development.


A school child in Tembisa using one of the text books
A school child in Tembisa using one of the text books


In our current programming we will continue to focus on three to four areas. I would expect for health to help the government to introduce this national health insurance scheme. Otherwise we’re putting a lot of emphasis on skills development for employment given the huge unemployment levels in this country currently standing at 50% of all youth and well above 25% in aggregate. And more generally to link EU wide efforts to support education with the business and small and medium enterprises scheme under the label of employability; to show that Europe has something to offer. 

We also have a good opportunity to continue working with some of the core government departments on what they call developing a capable developmental state. The main entry points on that are two-fold. Firstly in the area of justice, notably municipal and provincial justice through the Socio-Economic Justice for All programme. Secondly with the National Treasury on public finance management. 

Two weeks ago I was at the Treasury for a larger conference with the Minister of Finance. And the feedback we received on having helped the National Treasury to build up capacity across country, to really introduce a results based budgeting, the various indicators and tools used to link spending to policy was great. I also had the opportunity to market the recent DEVCO publication Collect More – Spend Better: A Contribution to the Third Financing for Development Conference.

The possibilities South Africa has to collect more, but also to spend better is a great discourse, where I’m quite happy that we can build on a good sort of DEVCO originated programme, which really puts us at fore of some of the unfinished governmental businesses here.


Further Reading:



Voices & Views


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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