Laura Sullivan

Laura Sullivan

CONCORD Board Member

Article written by Laura Sullivan, CONCORD Board member.

Laura Sullivan, Vice President of CONCORD and Director for Europe and the Americas at ActionAid International, was representing CONCORD in the Closing Ceremony of the European Development Days 2017. Here are her main takes (part 1).

There was something wonderful about speaking at the European Development Days this year. It is a demonstration of the healthy space that there is for democratic interaction. Unfortunately, we live in a time when that space is diminishing.  Around the world, civil society organisations are in a struggle to survive brought on by limitations to their right to speak out, to protect rights, to exist. It is CSO death by ban, by funding cut, by administrative rule.

What would the world look like without civil society?

Would the end of apartheid have happened? Would Kenya have free education? Would welfare states exist? Would women have the right to vote? Would the SDGs ever have come into being? And yet similar future possibilities are under attack now because of this shutdown on civil society that is has entered the rhetoric and practice of too many states around the world. And Europe has not escaped. We need the wave of repression against civil society to be recognised and stopped before it’s too late because you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

What does economic growth mean for the poor?

Over the last ten years, I have heard a lot and learned a lot, particularly from women, from all around the world. Their messages are incredibly similar:

  • Sans femmes, changement pas possible / without women change will never come
  • Land is life
  • Work is dignity
  • We only have one planet, we must respect it
  • My income has increased in recent years – but I still have no control over the land under my feet. This is why inequality matters, not just on income, but on power

Some of this wisdom and logic is echoed in the SDGs, which are all about putting people and planet first, as the filter for decision making. They go beyond economic development to the social, the environmental and the governance side of things. Unfortunately we don’t feel the same spirit come through when we read the EC’s roadmap going forward, the European Development Consensus. It brings us back to that economic logic with economic growth as the central goal.

Let’s illustrate this with some figures:

Globally from 2010-2013, economic growth (4.5%) was double wage growth (2.5%) (ActionAid).

In Nigeria:


GDP growth over the past 20 years

Number of million people in poverty

Million of inhabitants

Nigeria’s growth has not reduced inequality.



In Guatemala: 


GDP growth from 2012-2015


Poverty rate in 2006


Poverty rate in 2014

Indigenous people have much higher poverty rates than non-indigenous Guatemalans. Inequality in political power is stark, with only 15/158 indigenous MPs.


In Vietnam: 


Percentage of the population living with less than $2 a day

While the World Bank views Vietnam as a Middle Income Country on the basis of average GNI of $1900 per capita.

Because of these ratings – based on economic criteria that are still at the heart of mainstream discourse and practice around development – countries get different treatment in terms of aid and trade. Some argue that the EU should only create the conditions for growth and whatever happens inside countries in terms of redistribution of wealth is up to them. The problem is that no country is an island. Trade and investment rules mean that countries don’t have carte blanche to do as they wish (and power relations mean that not all always get the best deal). And IMF and World Bank imposed austerity further limit state capacity to put in place pro poor pro equality policies.

The narrative around migration

Another crucial aspect of the new EU Development Consensus is the focus on curbing migration. Overall in the EU there has been a rapid growth in aid spend within our own countries on refugee costs. Development cooperation will also be made conditional on the cooperation of the partner countries in the areas of return, readmission and reintegration of their nationals, while the EU is willing to agree to “maximising the synergies and applying the necessary leverage by using all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including development and trade”. This is problematic because it takes us very far from the poverty focus of development aid.

All too fast the vocabulary has shifted away from people and their rights to ‘irregular migration’ and ‘legal flows’. Orwell may have had something to say about that. In fact I didn’t think I’d see a day where aid was instrumentalised for border control. To what end? First people won’t be deterred from moving when their lives depend on it.  65 million people are on the move to survive, though most of them are nowhere near Europe. Border control has nothing to do with root causes. It’s time to focus on that alone and to create a legacy for Europe that we can be proud of.


It is time to abandon these misconceptions of economic growth and border controls being synonymous with development for the people. Well being and justice should be at the heart of our investment in Development.


Story to be continued… here!