A gentle exchange or an Agenda for Change in the Sahel? Implementation challenges of EU development policy


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      With a new and rebranded Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, comes the desire (as usual) to start with something new. 

      But how have past EU commitments in the Sahel actually been implemented?

      Part one

      For the European development professionals we interviewed in the Sahel, the 2011 EU Development Policy the Agenda for Change (AfC) is one overarching policy document amongst hundreds of other guideline papers sent by Brussels, yet it was the one that has had continued political sponsorship and is continually referenced. How is this ambitious policy agenda being applied and has the EU managed to design realistic implementation strategies. 

      The AfC focuses on aid differentiation and promotes new modalities, such as blending. Differentiation and blending face difficult implementation in the fragile context of the Sahel: there are still few tools to work with private investors and there are still limited economic opportunities present in comparison to Middle Income Countries (MICs).

      This first blog gives some views on the sector concentration, which relates to the number of priority sectors in each partner country. Along with aid coordination and political dialogue on aid, the issue of the concentration of sectors is one of the three other principles promoted by the AfC. The EU commitment to a limited number of sectors to avoid fragmentation is an old one and dates back to 2007. It was reiterated at a timely moment in the EU’s programming cycle in the AfC. How these commitments are translated into practice varies from one place to the other.

      One would assume that the AfC is the result of the lessons learned by EU Delegations in their experiences of implementing the 10th European Development Fund (EDF) that ran from 2007 to 2013 and gathered by headquarters in Brussels. Surprisingly, it is not. There has been at times a mismatch between the priorities identified in host countries and the priorities determined in Commissioner Piebalgs’ cabinet. There is another paradox. The implementing of the AfC will consist of negotiation based on two irreconcilable if not contradictory principles where the political economy of donors themselves matters - the Busan Aid Effectiveness and the sector concentration sketched out in the 2011 AfC communication. The former’s principle of alignment to partner countries’ strategies on the one hand, may in some cases contrast with the latter that actually reiterates previous commitments made on the division of labour and aid fragmentation. The result can only be a compromise.

      Sector Concentration: Will Agendas Really Change?

      The Agenda for Change (AfC) introduced new approaches while being quite flexible on their application. One approach follows the idea of focusing EU aid on 3 priority sectors in each partner country (sector concentration) to be picked up from a range of sectors clustered under the two headings, followed by sub-headings: 

      - Governance

      a) Social protection, health and education,

      b) Business environment and regional integration and

      c) Agriculture and energy

      d) Environment as a cross-cutting priority 

      - Inclusive and Sustainable Growth

      a)    Social protection, health and education

      b)    Business environment and regional integration

      c)    Agriculture and energy, with environment seen as a cross-cutting priority.  

      Against this background, the European Commission (EC) has stepped up its engagement in agriculture, environment and climate change related sectors in the Sahel.

      When interviewing EU Delegations staff in the Sahel, we learned that programmes often have to be rebranded so as to more immediately reflect the AfC priorities, while ensuring some continuity with past engagement. AfC priorities do not always match the priorities of the host countries or those of EU Member States keen to have their say in EC aid programming. In addition, the very idea of concentrating aid in 3 sectors can be seen from various angles. In a sense, it solves the fragmentation problem and pushes donors to develop an added value to the particular sectors they work in. Yet, some interviewees in Mali underlined the fact that donors’ added value is very relative and varies according to priority-setting cycles and aid markets dynamics. In other words, sector concentration holds as a principle if donors stick to it in the long run, which is not a given, of course. 

      Furthermore, implementing aid programmes in technically demanding sectors such as the environment, health, education and governance will require the involvement of highly skilled experts in EU Delegations and DEVCO where thematic expertise has actually been reduced in recent years. Even in areas where expertise is available, the challenge is in translating new objectives (such as emerging environmental norms) into realistic options for implementation that are also acceptable for host countries’ partners. Early experiences show that, unsurprisingly, partner countries for which growth generally remains the utmost priority view any new norms imposed by the EU more as obstacles rather than as opportunities.

      In some of the sectors identified by the AfC, such as health or social services, the absorption capacity and the robustness of receiving countries’ administration structures is questionable. Sector concentration has inevitably resulted in a number of basic needs being unmet in sectors like infrastructure, thus stirring resistance. In the case of the Sahel this has led some heads of state in the region (for instance in Niger) to insist on keeping resources for infrastructure, which the EU ultimately did despite existing counter-arguments.

      Things look different for sustainable agriculture and food security, an area of common interest for humanitarian aid and development cooperation. At the political level, it was pushed as a political priority by the two relevant EU Commissioners - Piebalgs on development and Georgieva on humanitarian aid. In line with African continental agendas it became central in the implementation of the AfC in the region through the programming process of the 11th EDF. ECHO, whose humanitarian aid programming is separate, also played a significant role. Although joint efforts on food security and nutrition varied country by country, and obviously depend on personalities, the AfC was indirectly a catalyst for joined up EU work.  

      The AfC communication certainly pushed staff to think of new ways to modernise their working culture and match new challenges such as climate change. What came out of a first round of consultations in the Sahel is that the priority sectors identified by the AfC in the framework of its first section on inclusive and sustainable growth will require much more policy dialogue to be translated into concrete and transformative actions in the region.

      The next blog will look at coordination and political dialogue in the implementation of the Agenda for Change in the Sahel. Subscribe to ECDPM’s Weekly Compass to receive this straight to your inbox in two weeks time. 

      In addition to structural support by ECDPM’s institutional partners The Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria, this publication also benefits from funding from the Department of International Development (DFID), United Kingdom.

      The views expressed here are those of the author, and may not necessarily reflect those of ECDPM. 

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