That the EU decided to address human development in Council Conclusions this month is to be welcomed. That those Conclusions were bland and simply repeated previous commitments is, however, definitely to be regretted. And that the EU can – yet again – view this through the perspective of pursuing EU interests and contributing to economic growth is more than a little mind-boggling. What on earth happened to the people-centred approach? To the fact that this needs to happen because it is right? Because it is people’s due?
Unfortunately for the Council, actions speak louder than words and despite their support for “access to essential medicines, vaccines and health technologies for all”, they nonetheless prescribe and limit how this will happen. The Council also supports the “strengthening of capacities of partner countries to roll-out [sic] vaccination campaigns”, but doesn’t say a word as to where said support will come from!
Now, clearly, the very fact of donors supporting so-called ‘human development’ in other countries is a highly sensitive issue. Both the terminology itself and the fact that richer countries (or indeed, extremely wealthy individuals, often from the global North) are helping countries ‘to develop’ can cause offense, even when the intentions are good. As our colleague, Moses Isooba, the Executive Director of the Uganda National NGO Forum, pointed out, not only do donors need a healthy dose of humility, which surely must involve acknowledging and acting on the fact that a country knows best what it needs, but they must combine their international cooperation efforts with a very real effort to decolonise relations.
The issue of ‘decolonisation’ is becoming a ‘sexy’ subject and if we aren’t careful will end being just a catchphrase instead of a very serious issue. All global North stakeholders must be willing to look themselves in the mirror and realise the extent of the efforts which are needed in this regard, to overcome both our historical baggage and also our ongoing neocolonial approaches. Every part of the global economic system which we impose on others should be revisited. Every part of the international governance system in which rich countries impose the rules should be revised. Every aspect of international trade should be rebalanced. And every part of the “aid” system should be reoriented to give power and access to global South actors.
That set me thinking about all the efforts that have nonetheless been ploughed into realising universal health care, ensuring twelve years of free and compulsory education for every child, guaranteeing food security and good nutrition for everyone, whether by the EU, other donors or by civil society. And yet we are still so far from achieving these goals.
So where have we – collectively – gone wrong? The very fact that more money flows out of countries in the global south than flows into them via international cooperation has to be one component. Jason Hickel calculated that for every dollar of ‘aid’ entering global south countries, $24 leaves them in illicit capital flight, debt repayments/interest, IPR and so on. So one could certainly wonder who is developing whom?
If the EU truly wants to offer “systemic support” for human development, as the Council Conclusions claim, then countries must be able to raise enough money themselves to pay for quality public essential services. Domestic resource mobilisation should never be an after-thought, as in the Conclusions. Not only must the EU act swiftly to stem illicit financial flows – estimated by UNCTAD to be $89 billion/year from Africa alone – but it must ensure that European companies do public country-by-country reporting and pay taxes in the country of operation. Which leads me to the G7’s recent announcement of a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15%. Yes, we do need to stop the race to the bottom, but is that the best rich nations can do?? Where’s the triumph there? That’s barely higher than the rate applied by one of the main tax havens, Ireland!
Above all, ‘aid’ should be a short-term solution, while all the mechanisms and systemic solutions are put in place which will allow countries to be fully responsible for their own affairs. Determining a roadmap to allow the gradual phasing out of ‘aid’ would be an important contribution rich country governments should make. Because if not, aid will become (or already is?) part of the problem, not part of the solution. A kind of tacit compensation for the ongoing extractivism and exploitation by the global north of global south resources.
How we provide support to other countries is also key. There is possibly no perfect mechanism (budget support being increasingly discredited, commercialisation of essential public services to be avoided at all costs and working through NGOs risking fragmentation). But what is clear is that stakeholders in the EU’s partner countries must be in the driving seat – whether they are the government, local civil society or, where appropriate, the local private sector.
INGOs face their own Catch-22 situation: bound by donors’ tight funding rules and regulations, which not only favour international organisations, but which work against the involvement of less structured and organised groups, we struggle to open up our operations. However, we should take it upon ourselves to fight back against being institutionalised by ‘the system’. So one important role for European INGOs will be to advocate to the EU for a proportion of funding to be trust-based which would allow for greater engagement with local NGOs as long-term strategic partners. In that way, as Moses rightly put it, we can all move on from funding relationships to real partnerships.
Will the Team Europe Initiatives, which are going to account for much of the programming in partner countries, be a good place to start? That depends firstly on whether they will adequately address human development and inequalities and secondly on whether the EU is willing to change its modus operandi.