Stop Politicizing EU Aid to Africa

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Written by Caroline Holmund

In his State of the Union speech on September 13th, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for member states to contribute more to the EU-Africa Trust Fund—or run the risk of a new wave of migrants arriving on their doorsteps. “We know the risks of a funding shortage,” he said, appealing not to leaders’ values but to their fears of new influxes of foreigners. “In 2015, many migrants wanted to join Europe when and because the funds of the UN World Food Program were exhausted.” He even made a bow to right-wing hardliners, telling MEPs that the EU had to step up its game and forcibly return more people without the right to stay in Europe.

Yet by framing Europe’s relations with Africa solely in terms of stopping migration, the EU is leaving by the wayside longer-term development goals that would contribute to Europe and Africa alike. It’s vital for Brussels to expand its narrative beyond the politicized issue of migration and aim for more comprehensive development cooperation that would both confirm the EU’s status as a leader in foreign aid and help African nations reach their full potential.

It’s true that, as the latest index by the Center for Global Development confirmed, European countries lead the way when it comes to their commitment to development aid. But there’s growing risk that, as Brussels tethers development aid to political ends, it will be rendered ultimately ineffective. After all, it’s telling that after Juncker called for EU member states to increase their contributions to the Fund, numerous development NGOs, civil society members, and African and European officials slammed the venture for politicizing aid and for failing to achieve its objectives.

Launched in 2015, the Fund now has resources of nearly €3 billion. With projects concentrated in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions, it aims to promote development and address the root causes of destabilization, displacement, and irregular migration. Originally, it was crafted as a political communications tool designed to show citizens that the EU is responding to the migrant crisis. And this is where its main problems lie. Development assistance is supposed to foster long-term, sustainable growth in close collaboration with partner countries. Yet the Fund does the opposite by focusing on securing quick success stories with minimal involvement by partner governments or civil society members. As Global Health Advocates found, officials favored projects with immediate visibility over those with longer-term impact. For instance, the EU turned down a project in Senegal mainly because there would be no results for four years. And while officials chose and announced projects quickly, they did not actually disburse the funds for more than a year.

In addition to functioning mainly as a political tool, the Fund undermines development aid by wielding it as bargaining chip to push African governments to curb migration and improve cooperation with Europe. But this strategy misses out on the bigger picture and fails to channel aid to those who need it most, falling short of long-term goals. For example, examining the Fund’s projects shows that migration patterns, rather than structural drivers of poverty, have been the main determinants of funding allocation. Yet the EU’s impatience to curb migration in the short-term has had negative effects in some cases, such as by preventing people from migrating to neighboring countries for work—further depriving communities of economic opportunities.

Meanwhile, as the EU-Africa Trust Fund and other European development instruments have failed to deliver adequate results, NGOs and private firms have been forced to step in and fill the gaps. This has been a particularly acute issue during global health crises, such as the 2014-15 Ebola pandemic in West Africa. For instance, Oxfam was among the main European NGOs that led the first response in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where they provided dozens of health centers with water infrastructure and medical equipment. They also trained hundreds of volunteers to go door-to-door and teach local populations about the new virus in countries with paltry medical personnel. And in Guinea, another hard-hit nation, the biggest foreign investor in the country—Russian aluminum company Rusal—formed a public-private partnership with the government to donate critical medical equipment and invest in a new centre to test vaccines for the virus. Rusal later donated the centre to the government and this summer, 2,000 volunteers in Guinea received the vaccine as part of the clinical review process.

Even today, these non-profits and companies continue to furnish critical stopgap measures where the EU’s efforts fall short, providing humanitarian assistance for migrants and job opportunities for local populations. Yet as the Gates Foundation pointed out in a new annual report—to be fair, focused mainly on the US’ retreat on foreign aid—if governments don’t continue sustained efforts to fight poverty, it will be impossible for outside actors to pick up the bill.

On one level, Juncker seems to have realized this. In a strategic note by the European Commission’s in-house think tank, which Juncker established and oversees, he lays out a vision for a comprehensive partnership in which the EU and Africa work together as equals to boost development. Rather than hammering home on ways to contain migration, ‘The Makings of an African Century’ emphasizes ways for both sides to leverage Africa’s considerable resources—above all, its people—for mutual benefits. It’s a shame that in his State of the Union speech, Juncker didn’t draw from these elements, but only succumbed to short-term political goals.