Views from the Field: Q&A with Johann Hesse, EU Head of Cooperation in India & Bhutan
Johann Hesse is Head of Cooperation at the EU Delegation to India and Bhutan, where he is responsible for development cooperation for the two countries. In previous assignments he worked on providing assistance to Albania at head-quarter level (then DG ELARG), and as Head of Section at the EU Delegations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Tanzania. Prior to that he worked with GIZ in Ghana for many years.
Capacity4dev (C4D): As a middle-income country, India no longer receives EU bilateral development assistance. With 270 million people still living in poverty, do you think India was ready for the new label, and can you give an overview of the EU’s continued cooperation there?
JH: India is hugely diverse - it’s both a country and a sub-continent. It has 29 states, some of which you could compare in size to countries, and seven union territories. From a population of 1.3 billion, some 600 million people are without access to sanitation facilities. This is mind boggling. At the same time India has made huge progress to reduce poverty and increase quality of life, and made an impressive effort on the Millennium Development Goals.
The change of status comes from the regulation of the EU’s Development Cooperation Instrument, which says countries are eligible for geographic programme support if they contribute below 1% of world GDP. India contributes about 8% of world GDP, so it doesn’t qualify to benefit from geographic programmes. But there are still thematic and regional programmes which can be funded, and that’s what we do. We also have important projects under the Democracy and Human Rights instrument, including on access to justice.
It’s useful to take a step back and separate the particular issue of development cooperation from the overall relationship between India and the EU. There’s an architecture of dialogue that includes platforms for discussing renewable energy, water, human rights and trade; as well as issues such as security and fighting terrorism.
The way it works in practice is that in the Delegation we have colleagues representing the European Commission’s line DGs [Directorate Generals] for Environment, Climate and Energy; Home (Migration and Home Affairs), Move (Mobility and Transport), and SANTE (Health and Food Safety). The discussions are with particular ministries or at state level; in India, it’s the states which are in charge of environment or water issues, transport and health; while for more strategic Technical Cooperation projects, the central ministries are our main beneficiaries, and we have almost daily contact.
There are a variety of issues that hopefully ten years from now will have grown into a full-fledged partnership between the two sides.
C4D: What role can concessional loans and blending play in India’s evolving development landscape?
C4D: Could you share any lessons learned from the programmes which have recently come to a close?
JH: Budget Support has a long history in India, and there are a lot of lessons learned out of that. Before graduation we had three major blocks of assistance. There were sector programmes, especially on health and education, which the Indian government continues to develop. The second block was more strategic, based on Technical Cooperation with particular ministries, for example trade and skills development, environment and energy efficiency – and some of these are ongoing. And the third major block has been working with civil society with different sorts of funds on various thematic areas.
Overall, the successful programmes have been those where from the start, all the activities were agreed and owned by the government, where the government was on board from the beginning; where everything was well integrated into the budget processes of the country, and not added as extra processes somewhere and audited somewhere else.
C4D: Are you aware of CSOs being put under pressure, and can the Delegation offer support?
JH: India is not like other places where CSOs are asked to close down or are prosecuted. In India, there has always been a history of controlling the flow of foreign funds to CSOs and others, and that is an issue where the government is very strict now. If an organisation is not fulfilling its obligations under the relevant legislation, they risk losing permission to receive foreign funds. It’s not more nor less - they won’t be prosecuted; in the worst case they will not receive foreign funds, but they will still be able to operate. There is a lot of talk about the shrinking space for civil society, but it is still very open and vibrant in India.
There’s a lot of good work being done together by civil society organisations, international NGOs with a strong basis locally, and the government. One of these areas to highlight is human rights, particularly of women and female children. In India for every thousand boys, only 970 girls are born; it’s a serious issue. Our approach is not to sit on our own and design particular activities to address these problems, but to reinforce, fund and support ongoing activities. For example I remember visiting a project by Plan India doing fantastic work on visibility and advocacy on the rights of girl children - a campaign against female feticide. I remember a very lively puppet show in Jaipur, Rajasthan, creating awareness about violence against women and what to do. Children were glued to the show - the methods they used for transmitting information were excellent.
C4D: India’s Constitution bans discrimination on the basis of caste, though it persists in many places. How do you ensure programmes leave no one behind?
JH: It’s very sensitive and political, and not something that we strategically enter into discussion on; the Indian government is well placed and is doing a lot to deal with that.
In terms of our support, I was recently in Wanaparthi Village in Jangaon District, Telungana, where we are funding a water and sanitation project with an NGO called Centre for World Solidarity. The NGO drew a map showing the interventions, before and after the project, and the map had abbreviations that you or I would describe as part of the caste system – scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, all earmarked there. It is a very real thing that people deal with like that, and interventions were planned to cover those communities. They have one intervention in one area or village, and the sensitivity is to ensure all communities are covered by the activities.
C4D: How is India progressing on the Sustainable Development Goals, and what support can the Delegation give?
JH: It’s impressive what’s happening - India was very quick to organise itself and be ready for the implementation of the SGDs. In the early stages they allocated clear responsibilities on each SDG to particular ministries, with specific targets to be met. You could say they are much more advanced than we are in the EU on that. They take it seriously - they have consultations going on around particular SDGs and sectors, and some states have started to plan their activities around SDG frameworks. We are involved in monitoring and discussing with partners, for example with the UN, which is leading this process.
A lesson to draw is that they are very inclusive; and there are strong partnerships between certain think tanks, civil society and government. They work together from the planning to data collection, analysis and monitoring.
I would say that if you want to make any impact on the SDGs worldwide, you cannot really ignore India. Consider simple mathematics, if you want to reduce poverty worldwide or have a meaningful impact on global emissions, India will be an important partner.
And India is a donor in its own right now - it provides millions in support to neighbouring countries. After the earthquake in Nepal, India was one of the first countries to offer assistance, and a substantial amount; also to Bhutan, Bangladesh and others in the region. It has also begun to do triangular cooperation, for example in Afghanistan with the UN.
C4D: Moving onto Bhutan: could you give an overview of the EU’s support?
JH: It’s a very different picture. Bhutan is a least developed country (LDC). It’s land-locked, sandwiched between India and China, and mountainous - so there are a lot of ups and downs, as the Prime Minister said recently. A major challenge is climate change, as the economy relies to a large extent on agriculture, and flooding and droughts really affect the country.
Compared to the previous financial framework, we’ve tripled our cooperation with Bhutan. Our assistance is mostly sector budget support, and we have had a very good experience with Bhutan on this. Rural development and climate change are a focal sector; as well as governance issues such as public financial management (PFM); and thirdly, cooperation with civil society. There’s been enormous progress, and Bhutan has the prospect of graduating from LDC status in two or three years.
C4D: What’s the goal of the PFM support, and how is the Delegation assisting?
JH: The PFM is about to take off - it includes income generation, tax policies and budget preparation, which includes internal and external controls and oversight of the Budget process; how much is released compared to how much is planned.
It’s based on a strategy the government developed closely with the IMF and World Bank, focusing on capacity building. Bhutan is very serious about managing its own public finances, monitoring and reviewing the processes. Bhutan is doing better than many countries in the region, but there are still issues. In the budget preparation process, in the different districts they don’t have connectivity to the central main systems, and a big issue is we don’t see a connection between what is planned in terms of budget, and the monitoring of activities. If you fund something, you know something is going on that you should monitor. We’re working to support connections between the processes, creating a holistic system.
I’d also add that on public finance management, in Delhi we are now contributing funds to a center which is run by the IMF, which offers capacity building and training for all the ministries and other institutions of all the countries.
C4D: Bhutan has pioneered a Gross National Happiness approach – what does it entail, and what role does it play in donors’ coordination?
JH: Bhutan’s development concept is based on what they call Gross National Happiness, an idea formulated by the Fourth King of Bhutan in the 1970s. It means they are not only looking at economic growth as in GDP, or even socio-economic growth, but a holistic concept which includes elements of protecting the environment; preserving cultural identity; and good governance.
The government is very serious about planning the activities that they are able to carry out with their budget. Between the prime minister and particular ministers, their performance agreements are based on certain targets and activities set out in five-year plans which are part and parcel of the Gross National Happiness approach.
In terms of donors, in Bhutan we only have one Member State still working there with bilateral assistance, which is Austria, and of course we have very good relations with them. Otherwise we work a lot with the World Bank and UN family and a couple of other international organisations. There is a formal process led by the government, what they call a roundtable meeting, where they invite all the international development partners to present their ideas for the next five-year plan. The coordination is led by the government, so the ownership is there, as well as integration into the planning, the budget, the execution, the reporting – that’s why it works very well.
C4D: How do you work on a regional level?
JH: The regional cooperation body relevant for the area, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) based in Kathmandu, is very much affected by the geopolitical situation in the region, especially the relations between Pakistan and India. So while SAARC is rather absent to coordinate activities, we have some specific work that we do for example on disaster risk management, through the World Bank; and on Himalayan mountain development, which covers all the area of the Himalayan mountains.
C4D: How is the EU supporting climate change resilience and disaster risk reduction in Bhutan?
In the following video, Johann Hesse discusses climate change resistant seeds, irrigation and wildlife protection measures; and how DEVCO and ECHO work together on disaster risk reduction.
For more information on EU cooperation in India and Bhutan, visit the Delegation’s website.
Photos: Johann Hesse