Simon Maxwell

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altLessons from the EUEuropean Union Changemakers


These are first thoughts from a successful conference for EUEuropean Union Changemakers, held at ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) on 24/25 June. We had participants from a dozen countries, from the public and private sectors, and from think-tanks and NGOs, as well as official aid agencies. The core questions were about how the EUEuropean Union needed to change in the development arena if it was to continue being relevant and useful – and specifically about what should be on the agenda for the European parliament elections in 2014 and the appointment of a new Commission. There will be a formal report. These are personal views.

First, there’s a bit of a divide between those I described as starting from an a priori European position, and those, including me, who are more transactional in their approach. The first group talked quite a bit about shared interests and common approaches as a jumping off point; the latter group more about recognising divergent interests, institutional choices and the need to make the case. The two groups may come together. Working through the EUEuropean Union offers economies of scale and  greater weight internationally – and there are many areas, like international trade policy, which are inevitably European as a consequence of the internal market. Nevertheless, we should not adopt the Mt Everest option: always to think first about the EU, ‘because it is there’.

 Second, it is not difficult to sketch out a vision of future EUEuropean Union development cooperation, very (well, at least a bit) different from the current version. The values would be the same, inspired by ideas of social justice. However, there would be less emphasis on service delivery in poor countries, many of which will graduate from aid, and more emphasis on delivering global public goods, including sustainability and peace. A greater variety of instruments would come into play (including trade, new forms of finance, climate rules, and foreign policy); and partnerships would be needed with a greater range of countries, including of course the BRICS. I have previously described this as ‘same mission statement, new job description’. In this context, two key ideas for post-2015 come into play, both advocated by the High Level Panel on post-2015: first, the idea of unifying poverty and sustainable development goals into a single framework; second, a universal approach, applying to both developed and developing countries. I have been advocating for both of those, so think the HLP has got it right. Could this vision not be used as a vehicle to garner support for development, and even perhaps help re-connect the EUEuropean Union with its citizens?

Third, it is also quite easy to imagine what the development cooperation agency of the future will need to look like, and what its place in Government should be – whether nationally or at EUEuropean Union level. There will need to be a wide range of skills available, on a wide range of topics, including those related to brokering global deals and managing partnerships with different kinds of countries. The ability to manage relationships and delivery mechanisms across Government will be essential. This will certainly not be an ‘aid’ ministry, and it may not even be a separate ministry at all. It was interesting to learn at the conference that some countries had already or were thinking of creating new ministries, sometimes called ‘globalisation’ or ‘global issues’, incorporating aid, trade, and sometimes climate, alongside foreign policy. The main issue, though, is about competencies. As one donor representative remarked: ‘we are terrified by the extent and speed of change that will be needed in our institution’. Note that the EUEuropean Union is on the edge of the red zone in the Kharas/Rogerson stress test of aid agencies’ readiness for the future.

Fourth, this kind of agenda is certainly non-trivial as far as the EUEuropean Union is concerned. The basic building blocks may be in place, including the creation of the (unifying) External Action Service, and the mandate to work across thematic areas on ‘policy coherence for development’. However, the silos are both strong and well-cemented, both in the Commission and the Parliament. Examples of successful networking and joined-up action can be found (Somali piracy is often cited), but remain exceptional. Many proposals can be made to foster a new approach: deputies to the High Representative for External Affairs, a more explicit hierarchy among external commissioners, led by the High Representative/Commission Vice-President, perhaps different way of organising funding, certainly a more integrated approach by the committees of the European Parliament. There is material on all of that on the EDCSP website.

However, fifth, and again to quote a participant, ‘no-one should underestimate the depth and strength of vested interests opposing change in our institutions’ – nationally and perhaps especially at EUEuropean Union level. A possible outcome from next year’s elections and Commission process is a new vision and new capacity to implement, with strong political leadership, greatly increased capacity to deliver cross-sectorally, and improved parliamentary accountability, all backed up by high levels of public support. More likely is continued but probably slow evolution, marked by continual and messy debate about the limits of EUEuropean Union competence and the internal arrangements of EUEuropean Union development cooperation.

Sixth, then, an important question will be about how to incentivise and manage change. Statements of purpose may help, especially if articulated by those with the capacity to set agendas. However, collective action theory suggests that other elements will be needed, including trust-building measures and the deployment of incentives. Finance is probably key. Having a seven year perspective for the budget and the EDF provides predictability for EUEuropean Union planners, but does it also reduce their responsiveness to signals from stakeholders? Could there not be promises of additional money if changes are made?


Finally, there is an important role for consensus-building and policy engagement across national boundaries – exactly the purpose for which the EUEuropean Union Changemakers group was established. New ways of working need to be found, however. Policy-makers and politicians are busy. Attendance at meetings is costly. Participation in e-fora or discussions is unlikely. Probably, there will need to be a core steering group and then a variety of ‘instruments’ to reach different actors. The European Think Tanks Group will be a key actor in developing new narratives, but also in supporting disparate policy processes in the Member States of the EU.


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