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Europe’s development days are not delivering

The European Development Days have become an annual tradition. I was at the first one in 2006 but had not been back until this year when it returned to Brussels for the Belgian Presidency of the EU. They have certainly grown in size, in profile and the status of speakers. Unfortunately, it would be hard to argue that Europe’s development commitment has grown at the same pace.

2010 is the year by which rich European Union (EU) countries are due to reach a collective total of 0.56% of GNI (on their way to the 0.7% target) but they only achieved 0.44% in 2009, so it would be impressive if they make it this year. Some EU member states have already passed the 2010 goal – Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Spain and …the United Kingdom. The UK has made good progress lately but is now sticking where it is until 2013 when a leap to 0.7% is promised.

Equally important is improving the way that aid is delivered. A recent analysis of spending on maternal, newborn and child health showed that more than 90% was still given as project funding rather than allowing recipient governments to support their health systems. Failing to follow this approach creates a huge burden for recipient governments.

In May of this year, the EU adopted Council Conclusions on Global Health that were warmly welcomed by Save the Children. These commit the EU to protecting and promoting the right to health, and emphasises EU values of solidarity towards equitable and universal coverage of quality health services. It’s explicit about the need for social health protection models and for mechanisms that pool resources and avoid user fees at the point of service delivery.

The reality is that there is limited observance of these principles. The UK government has been a beacon of good practice but now appears less focused on principles and systems and more focused on measuring results — an approach which can see sustainable development lose out to countable activities delivered as projects.

Europe also faces a lot of challenges as the session on the post-Lisbon agenda showed. One speaker argued that EU development policy has been in paralysis for the last year due to lack of clarity about who leads development policy, following the establishment of the External Action Service (led by Cathy Ashton).

The long-standing African-Caribbean-Pacific grouping of countries in special relations with the EU was not mentioned in the Lisbon Treaty and may be getting sidelined. And, as ever when donors are not delivering their aid commitments, discussion switches to arguments about why aid is not really all that important after all.

Of course trade, infrastructure development and political alliances are extremely important but it is cynical to use them as a diversion from the failure to meet donor commitments on aid quantity and quality.

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