human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Does new EU-ACP deal really ‘decolonise’ aid?

Originally published on EUobserver under the title Does new EU-ACP deal really ‘decolonise’ aid?,  in co-authoriship with Albert Mashika, Executive Secretary of Caritas Africa.

Since 2018, when the European Union (EU) and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries started negotiations on the deal that would replace the Cotonou Partnership Agreement ending in 2020, calls for “de-colonising aid” and a strong role for local actors in development have grown into a din.

But are these being well heard by EU leaders?

The Council’s approval of the EU’s new agreement with the former colonies of its member states, which is expected to happen as early as this spring, is one of the next major steps toward the agreement’s endorsement. It will be born in a very particular context, marked by the European Commission’s change in narrative from “development cooperation” to “international partnerships,” and by a renewed focus on local capacities, mainly triggered by the pandemic. But based on what we have seen in nearly final drafts of the text, the EU seems poised to again fail to promote a real shift in power relations due to imbalances that remain written into the new deal.

If the EU truly wants to move away from a ‘donor-recipient’ dynamic, then it should start by acknowledging those imbalances and make a genuine effort to correct them, focusing now on the implementation stage. Even though EU officials talk about their intention to build “equal partnerships”, the new deal – which is the main decades-long framework for development cooperation and trade between these regions – fails to break with old paradigms.

Approach to migration

The EU’s approach during the negotiations on migration was completely at odds with its intention to build more balanced partnerships. EU proposals included only a few concrete steps to harness the positive aspects of migration and to invest in regular migration, one of the main priorities for ACP countries. Instead, EU proposals, as well as the agreement itself, overwhelmingly focus on reinforcing policing and building barriers, and other short-term measures aimed at reducing migrant arrivals in Europe, without any consideration whatsoever for the EU’s responsibility in creating the undignified realities that people understandably want to escape from.

The disproportionate focus on aspects of migration that are not a priority for most ACP countries, as well as the exemption of European actors from bearing any responsibility for the root causes of migration, mean this new phase has already placed equal partners on an unequal footing from the outset. The EU is far from acknowledging that its interest-driven or policy-first approach often cannot be reconciled with partner countries’ priorities, compromising the agreement’s objective of generating mutually beneficial outcomes. The gap between the reform-oriented discourse and actions preserving Europe’s dominant position goes beyond the migration topic. This gap is also present in several other aspects of the new agreement, such as trade, agriculture, and their impact on the interests of local markets and the human rights of local communities.

Agribusiness bias

In the case of agriculture, for example, it is clear that solutions proposed in the African pillar of the agreement favour large scale agribusiness. Little attention is given to the rights of smallholder farmers, whose harvests can rot before ever reaching a market, due to adverse market environments in their countries. It is a glaring omission that the final agreement might not reflect civil society and farmers’ cooperatives views warning against this approach.

The resistance to truly cede power is probably most evident in the fact that the new agreement in no way provides for what has come to be called “an exit strategy”. At no point is there envisioned a future in which aid from the EU is no longer needed, even if the ultimate goal of EU official development assistance is in fact to make partner countries strong enough to allow them to move away from the traditional and imbalanced donor-recipient relationship. If the EU wants a different result this time, then it will have to take a different approach when implementing the agreement. It will have to try much harder to promote bold structural changes in leadership.

The EU’s role in this scenario should be: first, to ensure that local actors, including grassroots organisations and, in particular, the people most affected by poverty and social injustice, have the power and resources to lead decision-making processes that impact them and to respond to humanitarian and development needs in an effective and sustainable manner; and second, to complement and strengthen local approaches if needed.

Weak, not irredeemable

Although the new EU-ACP agreement is regrettably weak in this regard, it is not irredeemable. While the agreement does not systematically place local leadership at the core of each of its actions, it does refer to local knowledge, authorities and communities. And while it also fails to emphasise the need to engage with civil society (including local and grassroots civil society organisations, groups active in rural areas, and social movements), it does commit the agreement’s parties to promote and strengthen civil society participation. It does not include specific objectives aimed at addressing the EU’s negative impact in ACP countries, but it establishes “policy coherence for development” as one of the agreement’s objectives.

Indigenous knowledge, local ownership, local capacities, local communities, civil society, policy coherence for development, resilience, sustainability, mutual respect, subsidiarity, complementarity: these terms are peppered throughout the new agreement, reflecting current semantics in international development circles. These are not empty buzzwords. The aspirations they reflect need to be the real guiding principles and primary goals as the new framework for EU relations with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries is realised.