EU development cooperation in sub-Saharan Africa: What did we learn?

Together with our colleagues from DIE, we recently completed an ambitious study for the evaluation department (IOB) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands on EU development cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa in the period 2013-2018. After several months of intense analytical work, we want to share some of the things we have learned along the way.


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      We looked at how EU development policy and cooperation priorities towards sub-Saharan Africa have evolved between 2013 and 2018, and analysed where and how EU aid money was spent during that same period. We also reviewed the results achieved in a number of key areas – such as peace and security, private sector development and gender – and, for each of them, identified what has either enabled or inhibited EU development effectiveness.

      To complete this substantial study, we reviewed available literature, ranging from EU policy documents, online aid datasets, and over fifty evaluation reports published by the EU institutions in the period 2013-2018. Given the uniqueness of this exercise, we wanted to share some of the observations and takeaways stemming from this analytical journey.

      One: Policy priorities are not swiftly translated into spending patterns


      Our first task was to examine to what extent the latest policy intentions of the EU had effectively been translated into corresponding spending allocations in its cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa.

      The major global shifts and regional crises that took place between 2013 and 2018 lead to a rapid recasting of EU development and foreign policy priorities. Of note, the EU’s development policy has become more integrated and interest-driven, and topics such as peace and security, migration and private sector development are increasingly prominent.

      Yet, policy priorities that emerged in 2013-2018 hardly influenced the budgetary allocations made in the same period. We observed an important time-lag between the formulation of (new) policy priorities and their translation into actual aid disbursements. This is mainly due to the lengthy EU decision-making process, where decisions on programming and spending resources only occur at critical junctures over seven-year budget cycles. Decisions are made at the beginning of the cycle and may be readjusted at mid-term, leaving little wiggle room for significant course correction, unless flexible and reactive instruments are in place.

      It is thus essentially through the creation of ad hoc instruments such as the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa or the External Investment Plan that the EU was able to align flexibly and quickly its aid towards a stronger focus on investment, security and stability, and migration-related expenditure.

      Looking at the evolution of EU’s aid over a longer period of time, and at the decisions made in the upcoming programming of EU resources for 2021-2027, would allow us to see whether the EU policy intentions set in 2013-2018 have been translated into corresponding aid disbursements.

      Two: Achievements are well-documented – yet the devil is sometimes in the bigger picture and not in the detail


      The second task at hand seemed quite daunting: to provide a (simple) answer to the question of whether EU development cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa has been effective in the period 2013-2018, and why? The answer we were able to give, in short – and unsurprisingly – is: it depends.

      It is very difficult to give a clear answer to the question above on the basis of the evaluation reports. Evaluation reports generally provide carefully balanced findings and no clear-cut answers to evaluation questions, even if they provide rich and detailed evidence on the EU’s development cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa in many areas. A key concern for us was synthesising the findings of reports on such a wide range of topics and countries without distorting their messages.

      What we can say after completing our research is that, overall, those evaluation reports published between 2013-2018 confirm the relevance of the EU’s choices and approaches when it comes to development cooperation in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as positive results accomplished. But the findings are much more nuanced when it comes to the sustainability of these results and the extent to which they helped to advance key development outcomes. Understanding this complexity is important when assessing the overall accomplishments of EU development cooperation.

      Three: There is a major gap in gender despite consecutive Gender Action Plans


      One particular aspect we were asked to look into was how well the EU fared with regard to the promotion of gender equality in its cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa. Rather disappointingly, we discovered that although gender equality is a cross-cutting priority in EU development policy, it was under-evaluated during the review period.

      Only one out of the 55 evaluation reports focused specifically on gender equality, while others provided only patchy findings on gender in EU development cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa. Gender equality hasn’t been sufficiently mainstreamed, although it was taken into account in the project designs. Also, there is little information on the results achieved in this specific area.

      There are various causes behind the lack of evidence on impact, varying from limited gender analysis and absence of relevant gender indicators and sex-disaggregated data, which should be used in the Commission’s results-oriented monitoring systems. The EU Gender Action Plan is meant to fill this gap but its annual monitoring does not provide any information on the impact or on the sustainability of the results. A point which should be taken into consideration in the next Gender Action Plan.

      Four: There is a need to look more closely at evaluations of donor cooperation


      Budget support remains an essential aspect of EU development cooperation and one where the EU has strong added value. At the same time, there has been a stronger use of other aid modalities and delivery channels, including project-type interventions, centrally-managed trust funds and blended finance. The EU has also increasingly channelled its aid through various intermediaries. These include international organisations, EU member states’ implementing agencies, development finance institutions and civil society organisations.

      The role for member states’ implementing agencies and development finance institutions has increased through the EU Trust Funds and the European Investment Plan. This calls for further analysis and evidence on how the EU and its member states complement each other and can best evaluate these forms of cooperation. More joint evaluations should be encouraged.

      Five: Evaluations do not always feed into the policy loop


      We have not found evidence that the evaluation findings were used to feed effectively into policymaking. One evaluation, for instance, pointed out that the information and data concerning the impact of the African Peace Facility could have been followed up by both the African Union and the EU.

      2014 study on the uptake of learning from EuropeAid’s strategic evaluations into development policy and practice found that the ‘uptake chain’ didn’t allow lessons learnt to be absorbed in a systematic, structured and effective way into policy and practice. While a more recent study would perhaps produce different results, the question of the extent to which the evidence generated by evaluations effectively feeds into policy decisions cannot be ignored.

      Political pressure for quick fixes is currently so high, that there is arguably very limited space for independent evaluations to impact the direction of policies. While the evidence generated by these reports remains of paramount importance, if and how they are actually used by policymakers deserves greater attention.


      Read the study ‘EU development cooperation with Sub-Saharan Africa 2013-2018: Policies, funding, results’


      ECDPM, jointly with the German Development Institute (DIE), conducted a study on EU cooperation with Sub-Saharan Africa for the evaluation department (IOB) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. The review analyses EU policies, aid spending and results achieved by EU development cooperation with Sub-Saharan Africa between 2013 and 2018. The research is based on existing sources of material (EU policy documents, reports, EU evaluations, scientific and other literature).


      The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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