Seamus Jeffreson: EU leaders divert aid money at our peril

9 December 2015

Seamus Jeffreson, CONCORD Director, talks to EurActiv in an exclusive interview

If, instead of providing billions to Turkey to stop refugees, EU leaders had supported the countries hosting them three years ago, with a fraction of these funds, Europe and the world would be better off now, Seamus Jeffreson told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.

Seamus Jeffreson is Director of CONCORD, the European confederation of Relief and Development NGOs. CONCORD is made of 28 national associations, 20 international networks and 3 associate members that represent over 2,600 NGOs, supported by millions of citizens across Europe.

He spoke to EurActiv’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

Was the European Year of Development successful? Its aim was to bring development to the attention of the general public, not just in Brussels but in the member states. What was achieved?

I think one of the achievements was that we made a real link with these global processes, particularly the Sustainable Development Goals. And the link that we made was with other civil society organisations, not directly involved in development, but talking about common themes.

What we tried to do at Concord, as the development NGO network, was to try to involve the other civil society networks in this European Year for Development, and I think that was a big success. This is because we got together with some of the other networks – youth, the women’s’ lobby, the disability forum, the social platform, and obviously environmental NGOs – throughout the year, and has a very good conversation about common agendas.

The glue that put that all together was the SDGs. We asked ourselves at the very beginning of the European Year what success would look like. One of the things we thought would constitute success was if we made or reinforced lasting alliances and relationships. I can confidently say that into 2016 and beyond, we will be working with those same alliances on some of the questions we started addressing in the European Year for Development. So that was a big success.

Another success was about what we call “the narrative”: what development is about. We had two big conferences, where what we looked at was, essentially, consumption in Europe and its relationship to the rest of the world.

So we had a number of projects looking at, for example, where we buy clothes and the impact that has on other parts of the world, mobile phones and conflict minerals, and these sorts of issues. And I think that was a rather fresh way of looking at our sector. It took us beyond the charity “sponsor a child” narrative, to an understanding that it is not just by giving to charities or demonstrating that we make choices or that we are aware of our impact on other parts of the world, but it is through our consumer choices that we can have a positive impact. And I know that has been done before 2015, but I felt there was a lot of activity around that in the conferences we did, and in some of our sub-grants.

My third and last point is that, as you said, a lot has had to happen, not just in Brussels, but around the EU, and I think there were many examples of different countries in Europe trying to engage with this topic. We started the EYD in Riga, under the Latvian Presidency, and throughout the year, there have been voices and stories and projects from different parts of Europe, with their own understanding of the issues of development and Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world. In our project, we certainly involved a lot of member states from Eastern Europe, and we even had a lot of project partners from outside the member states, in Serbia for example, which I think was a good thing. We have often been quite a Western European-focused community, so this was a success.

You will probably have an easier time communicating the SDGs now that more people are aware of what they are about.

Yes, I think so, but the communication of the SDGs is still a huge battle! But it was very appropriate to use the EYD to link to this global process, which we all hope will interest people a little bit more, and that people will become more involved in it. People have become very involved in the climate change talks, and there has been a lot of media attention, and we have also had some of that in the European Year for Development. We tried to echo some of these wider processes.

What do you see as the missed opportunities or the developments that negatively affected your work? One thing that comes to my mind is that the EU is going through difficult times with the refugee crisis, and we hear a lot about development funding being diverted. How serious is this?

It is very serious, there is no doubt about that. What had been positive about the EYD is that we do talk a lot about root causes, and our whole narrative on the debate about using aid budgets on the migration issue is that we should be using those aid budgets to look at the root causes of migration, not to meet the costs of dealing with refugees in Europe. Of course we must still do this, but not from the aid budget. This is robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is short-termism. But the EYD has been an opportunity to underline the root causes of this issue.

We have managed not to be pushed off track, while people have been asking whether development is really relevant in our current context – there is still austerity in Europe, there is Greece and so on. But, with the issue of the diversion of aid towards migration costs, we have been able to bring the debate round to the root causes of migration and look at the external policy we need to tackle these. So I wouldn’t see that as a missed opportunity, but as the beginning of a long debate.

What would you like to say to the highest European authorities?

That we divert aid money at our peril, and that we will come back in three years’ time and regret it. If we had been focusing on the conflict in Syria three years ago, if we had been supporting the counties that are hosting those populations three years ago with a fraction of what we are now talking about, and what we have now provided to Turkey, we may not be where we are now. If we had followed up the military intervention in Libya with real political, diplomatic and aid attention, as we should have done, we may not have been in the situation we are currently in.

So I think we often come back to regret those topics we did not deal with in the early stages of a crisis. It is always easy to look back in hindsight, but it is our job to say what we should have done. If we do that again, and we decide to cut our aid programme to Central Africa, to stop paying for projects we want to do in Kenya, then in three or four years’ time we will see that this will again become an issue.

But there were NGOs active on the ground in those camps, not only in Turkey. I find it quite disappointing that we do not talk much about Lebanon or Jordan, but there were a lot of indications that the funds were getting scarce, and indeed that is what happened. The NGOs were clearly not being heard.

Our voice was clearly not heard, but it was there. I was in Jordan. That is what I was doing before I came here, and I remember exactly what you are talking about. UN appeals from the FAO and the WFP asked for basic things for refugees inside Syria, at the time when it could still be delivered, but also in Jordan and Lebanon, and they struggled to fulfil those appeals – from the EU but from other donors as well, including the Gulf States.

The EU likes to say it is the biggest donor, but it wasn’t really up to the task there. We hear this fact being recognised, but it seems that nobody is to blame.

You said it yourself: NGOs have been quite vocal in identifying areas of need and in
seeking support. The message now is that we should avoid doing that again. If we need to spend money on supporting the refugees that have made it to Europe, as we so clearly do, let’s not take that from budgets that we need to tackle to root causes not only of migration, but also of insecurity and climate change. We need to find other sources of revenue.

That is the big issue, because budgets are getting scarce. I understand that even the EU is struggling to find the money pledged to Turkey. They pledged it, but where is it? Member states have to deliver most of it, but most of them don’t know where it will come from. Is innovative finance the answer?

That is very interesting, and we will look at it. At the very beginning of the EYD, I participated in a very interesting event. It was a lunch given by the Latvian foreign minister for all the EU foreign ministers, and I was speaking, so as a civil society representative I also received an invitation. We were given a speech by the OECD, which said that money is not the problem; the problem is political will.

We could argue about that, but there is also a lot to it. It is not that the finances do not exist in the system. If we want to save banks, we can find the money to do it. The money is there, so it is a question of political will.

I am going to a side event at the COP21 in Paris, where one of the issues that will make or break an agreement is climate financing. Many of our members have argued for a long time for a Financial Transaction Tax to slow down the sort of “casino” investments and to use some of the revenue from that for climate change mitigation and development in some of the poorest countries.

Europe has a carbon trading system to try to put a tax and a price on carbon. We think the revenue from that should also go to those countries that have had the least to do with causing climate change but are suffering the most. So I don’t think there is a shortage of innovative ideas for financing, but we need the political will to do it. And it is really a short cut and a short-termist attitude to just take money from the aid budget, and use that for a purpose other than the one it was designed for.

Of course everybody is thinking about what needs to be done to contain the refugee crisis, but there is a school of thought that says we have this refugee crisis because, maybe thanks to development, there is a middle class that is able to come our way. Is this a valid judgement?

It means we can’t win either way. Either people will say that development doesn’t work, or they will say, yes it works, but now look at the mess you have made! We can’t win.

What is true is that in a globalised world, people are mobile in a way that they have not been before. As Angela Merkel has quite rightly said, we cannot go back to walls and barriers, this is not the response. We now live in this globalised world, we live in a world where people travel, and we now need to look for other ways of dealing with that. It is not about going back to wall-building and trying to stop people.

As we see, if people want to get somewhere, they will get there. They will find a way. So we need to adapt to globalisation and the way the world now works. We have done a lot of work over the years on migration and development, and one of the things we have said is that we need to be much more reasonable about opening legal and dignified channels of migration. Apparently we can do it for Turkey, all of a sudden!

We have also always said that if people want to stay in their own place and for their children to be educated and grow up using the language of their parents and grandparents, we should do more to allow that to happen by stimulating the economy locally, through prioritising support for small-scale farmers and so on, so people don’t feel that they have no economic or social opportunities where they live. We can’t pull up the drawbridge, go back to 1850 and say we will stop people from moving. People are going to move, there is a free flow of information, there is a growing middle class, which is a good thing.

We need to be much more rational about legal avenues of migration, which we know we need in Europe. There is a care sector that is ballooning with an ageing population and nobody to look after them. And finally, we need to do better for the people who don’t want to migrate, but want to stay where they live – which is the vast majority of us in the EU and everyone else – and ask ourselves what we can do to make their lives better.

Any worries about the political developments in Europe? I am thinking particularly about the French regional elections.

Yes, I think that is very worrying. I read a piece in Le Monde that said, yes, the National Front is in the second round of the elections in all these regions, they stand a good chance of coming to power in some of them, and now it is time to look at their programme, to examine what they are saying they want to do.

But when you look at their programme, and the programmes of some of the other extreme right parties in Europe, it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t add up. They do not provide the answers that we can go back to. So I think that the prospectus they are offering voters, who are very upset and disturbed by the situation that they see: year after year of austerity and no way out. I can see why people are frustrated but I don’t think that the policy solutions being offered are in any way the answer, so I think it is very worrying. We see this very much in the development sector, where on a member state level there have been proposals for big cuts in aid budgets from countries that traditionally have been very supportive internationally, like the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands.

The push factor is of course that in many national governments, there are far right parties, nationalist parties, xenophobic parties.

Absolutely. We tend to focus on those voices that are calling for the cutting of aid budgets and so on. I believe they are still a minority, even if they now have quite an influential position, either inside or outside government, propping up governments with their votes.

One of the things we have tried to do, going back to the EYD, was to present positive voices. On the migration issue, one thing we all have to do more is to listen to the positive experiences of the migrant and diaspora communities that are now very much a part of our societies. People don’t hear that enough. People hear about terrorist attacks carried out by migrants and they think this has to stop. People don’t hear about migrant communities – and if you look back through the generations, you will see that none of us are too distant from migrant communities – and the positive contribution that they make.

So yes, it is very worrisome, but I think there is another narrative there, and we shouldn’t underestimate the proportion of the general public that still very much supports good causes and keeps paying year in and year out, our members that still get contributions from their supporters at Christmas time and other times. People still want to give and they want to support refugees and others. It is also very important to keep a spotlight on those other voices that contribute a positive narrative. And the politicians need to feel that as well.

This article originally appeared in Euractiv: http://www.euractiv.com/sections/development-policy/seamus-jefferson-eu-leaders-divert-aid-money-our-peril-320267