European development policy at crossroads

I was very lucky to attend the 2-day “EU change makers” high level conference at the Overseas Development Institute in my last 2 weeks at Bond. The event provided an excellent overview of the main issues and challenges facing the international development sector in Europe and was attended by senior stakeholders from governments, think tanks, NGOs, and a couple of politicians. I’ll attempt to summarise them, but this is my own selection and interpretation – other blogs by Simon Maxwell and Olivier Consolo may provide a broader overview. Also, the event – was held under Chatham House rules, so I won’t quote anyone.

The background is that there are obviously major challenges facing global global economic, resource and environmental systems. Beyond the well known (but still dramatically neglected) issue of climate change or the European financial crisis, there is an increasing concentration of key resources in very few countries, coupled with dramatic changes in global resource flows in the past few years. Chatham House has a very helpful interactive site on this.

Meanwhile, the development finance agenda is undergoing rapid change, with many plainly questioning the relevance of Overseas Development Assistance. “Non traditional” flows of finance – such as the growing role of remittances from migrants, or the emergence of China as a key actor in Africa’s development – have increased rapidly. At a time of constrained aid budgets, and rapid growth of some Middle Income Countries, the need for “domestic resource mobilisation” – such as the need to increase taxation of rich people and companies in poor countries –  becomes much more prominent. I recently commissioned three reports on this, as a key piece of work during my time at Bond.

Within the context of those global challenges, many ask whether traditional development aid donor agencies have to be reconfigured to focus on wider issues rather than mainly poverty reduction. There is talk of aid agencies engaging more heavily in a government-wide approach on topics such as global macro-economic management, climate change, security of state fragility, demonstrating leadership in managing the international system, including the reform of international agencies.

They are also called upon to step up their engagement with the private sector and work more intensely in difficult environments, e.g. fragile and conflict affected states (as the richest of the developing countries no longer need the same kind of help). This seems like a very broad agenda for aid agencies to take on, while they are also under enormous pressure to perform better in terms of effectiveness, and specific and measurable results on the ground.

A changing EU

The EU is the largest multilateral aid donor in the world, and its policies – from trade to agriculture or climate policy – have a major impact on developing countries. For the EU to adapt to this changing global scene, there are various options. But given the increasing challenges posed by resource concentration in a few countries – many of which are the very ones that are “graduating” from aid – how can the EU’s relationship with these countries be reconfigured? What is the EU’s role in establishing bilateral relations with these countries to solve global challenges given no individual member state can have the necessary clout?

Then again, Europe is in a deep crisis. This also reflects a more general crisis of the multilateral system, which can’t be good for the future chances of solving the multiple global challenges we are facing. Where is this new global agenda being organised? The EU? The G20? Or – as somebody put it a the ODI event – the “G0”…(nobody is really doing it!).

This also means the EU is way too focused on its internal problems, and this is likely to dominate the agenda for 2014 European Parliament elections, at a time when the EU’s leadership skills in the world would be really needed.

What is the role of the international development community within this context? Perhaps we need to remember that positive stories about the EU need to be told, too. Someone mentioned that European development – not just the EU’s role as a donor outside its borders but specifically reducing poverty within its own in a few decades – is a really important success story. But it is not being told.

Perhaps the EU (and those in the development world) need to focus on what is already working, and build on that, well rather than agonise over what isn’t going well.  For example, the EU could also find a priority focus for its global work on the green economy, where it definitely has a competitive advantage.

At the same time, if the EU wants to strengthen its role in the world, it needs to become more democratically responsive, and improve its ability to make decisions. Perhaps development should then not just be about least developed countries but also about safeguarding decent livelihoods for European citizens.

Crisis or opportunity?

Interestingly, a German senior official told me on the sidelines that this framing of the challenges we face as a major crisis is not as common in Germany: people there to think of them as major opportunities as well. We agreed this may have something to do with the major decision they have taken post Fukushima to completely overhaul the energy system away from nuclear and towards renewable energy in a few years, which has created a great momentum and a sense that change is really possible (and it’s probably not a coincidence that this decision was greeted with great scepticism here in the UK).

There were of course many discussions on the growing role of the private sector and the possible benefits and pitfalls of that. The risks coming from excessive reliance of developing countries on private flows were mentioned, as they are also easily reversible. (“Blending of grants and loans is very promising….provided you don’t cause a new debt crisis later”). Regulatory certainty was mentioned by a private sector person as key to reducing volatility in private investment.

Then again, a senior official at the event made the point that in the 50s European countries made huge investments in infrastructure, but now there seems to be a reluctance for the state to take an active role in solving national and global problems. Why are we unable to solve our challenges? Why can we not make the necessary investments now?

Countries have undermined their own ability to tackle these challenges by reducing the influence of the state on many issues, including transnational corporations or global financial flows. Global negotiations on all issues happen between weak national states (other than China and to some degree Germany).

Even the EU, with its large power to influence trade, is “nowhere” in terms of being able to control the international financial system. This also means that citizens – rightly – see both the state and the multilateral system as uncapable of tackling these challenges; which brings us back to the need for more democratic legitimacy.

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IEA sees staggering growth of renewable energy

I have been writing an article for a new publication soon to be launched by the editorial group that publishes Sun & Wind Energy magazine, and as part of the research I read a report that the IEA launched a few days ago – the  Medium Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2012. I am definitely very familiar with renewable energy issues, and used to hearing about its massive growth. Yet, I found some of the illustrations in the report genuinely staggering. Here is one, illustrating the incredibly rapid growth of solar photovoltaics globally. In 2011, they reached almost 70 Gigawatts (GW), starting from around 5 GW in 2005. So, on average, over those 6 years, the equivalent capacity of 10 nuclear power stations was installed per year in solar PV. Sure, the comparison is a bit stretched, as solar and nuclear operate differently – and of course the sun is not always shining (as we know well here in the UK this “summer”!). But the comparison does give some sense of proportion. We are not talking small numbers and marginal technologies any more.

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Overall, renewable energy is projected to growth by around 40% in the next 5 years. Some types of generation will grow at an even faster rate. Offshore wind power, for example, is set to grow from 4 GW to 26 GW in 2017 – and that is a relatively conservative estimate as it is assumed some countries will not manage to achieve the renewable energy targets they have set for themselves.

I think this should have been the top story on all business pages of all newspapers globally. Yet, a quick google search shows the story was mainly picked up by the specialist media, while the mainstream media did not cover it in detail. Then you wonder why so many people have wrong perceptions about renewable energy and its merits vs fossil fuels or nuclear power. As a business journalist myself, I really wonder a lot about what is behind this problem. I do have some ideas, but I’ll leave that for another post – as it’s a long and complicated discussion.

The UK’s Green Deal explained

I found this video about the Green Deal very well done. The Green Deal is a scheme which the UK government will launch later this year and that is meant to finance much needed energy conservation improvements in the housing sector. The potential is huge. How the scheme will work remains to be seen, but this video has made me feel more optimistic than I have been before. 

How to increase funding for “Cinderella” environmental issues

I’ve recently come across a very interesting report: “Where the Green Grants Went”, published by the UK Environmental Funders Network. The basic finding can be summarised very simply: environmental campaigns don’t get enough funding, given the massive scale of the crisis we are facing, and compared to the much larger funding that goes to other societal issues.

Despite the fact that 94% of UK citizens say the environment is “important” or “very important” to them personally (Eurobarometer poll), the environment is far from a mainstream issue in the minds of people making large donations to charity through trusts or foundations. Environmental grants represent only around 3% of total UK philanthropy, and climate change, within that, only around 0.7%. For example, 2009/10, grants made to climate change mitigation totalled £15.8 million. By means of comparison, in the same year, the National Galleries in London and Edinburgh raised £50 million in four months to purchase a single painting.

Within this comparatively small amount of funding, it is striking to read that some issues that EUr Policy works on, such as resource efficiency and EU policy, are getting an even smaller share.

The report specifically says that environmental organisations working at EU level are particularly under-resourced compared to commercial interest lobbies. This does not come as a surprise of course, but it’s interesting to see the actual statistics.

The EFN’s work to build an evidence base to UK environmental philanthropy is great. However, one wonders how these findings are recommendations can be taken on board more widely – and not just by donors, but also by environmentalists themselves. I have worked in places where a much needed piece of work that could potentially have influenced the environmental policy of 27 or more countries, costing, say, £3-4,000 was not carried out because funding was not available and people didn’t have the time or knowledge to fundraise for it. Now, if we had realised that this is a pretty small amount of money, compared to what spent on other causes, perhaps we would have had more courage to go out there and find the cash.

Ultimately, both funders and environmental organisation management teams need to become more enthusiastic about issues that are apparently very technical and where results are hard to understand – but that can have a lasting impact. This is quite a typical problem in EU policy, which may appear to be impenetrable to many but can have a massive impact when it goes the right way (or indeed when it goes the wrong way).

One solution would be to make the so-called “Cinderella” issues more palatable and accessible to campaigners and funders through clever use of technology. One example I have found is the Where We Live video. Produced in the US, this 9-minute documentary about a successful campaign to protect California’s climate change legislation. It is an inspiring video that explains in simple terms what would otherwise be a complex issue, illustrating how the campaign achieved its success. If something similar was done on successful EU environmental campaigns, this could perhaps help to encourage more organisations to overcome their resistance to becoming involved, and more donors to help.

Big tobacco, industry influence over EU policy

We’ve been meaning to blog about this for some time. A really interesting academic study has provided a huge amount of evidence about a direct link between lobby activities of British American Tobacco (BAT), and the way that the European Union has eventually established its own, mandatory system for cost-benefit analysis of every policy it implements. The study was actually published more than a year ago but as far as we can tell there hasn’t been much media coverage – despite the fact that the implications are far reaching and pretty troubling for anyone who cares about transparency and democracy in the institutions.

The study was carried out by a group of academics from top British Universities – The School for Health at the University of Bath, the Centre for International Public Health Policy of the University of Edinburgh, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London.

Political and policy decisions are often extremely complex. For this reason, Impact assessment (IA) of all major EU policies has been made mandatory. The study sought to assess how, why, and in what ways corporations, and particularly the tobacco industry, influenced the EU’s approach to IA. In order to verify this, the authors analysed internal documents from BAT that were disclosed following a series of litigation cases in the United States. They then combined this analysis with other related literature and interviews with key policy making experts. Their analysis “demonstrates that from 1995 onwards BAT actively worked with other corporate actors to successfully promote a business-oriented form of IA that favoured large corporations”.

Interestingly, the authors analyse how BAT – in order to reach its lobbying goals – also took advantage of the UK government of the time, which was strongly pushing for a “better regulation” agenda during its rotating presidency of the EU.

The idea of strong industry influence over EU policy making is neither surprising nor particularly worrying in itself. However this study provides a lot of detail and evidence about some questionable and untransparent industry lobby tactics used to secure policy changes that may be against the interests of the public. In addition, while the tobacco industry appears to have been the main initiator of this kind of IA policy push, other industry lobby groups have directly benefited from the industry-friendly version of IA. In particular the authors quote the chemical industry, which may have directly benefited from this version of IA during the negotiations on the so-called REACH policy.

It is not to late to do something about this – in particular we think that civil society groups should pay far more attention to the whole issue of cost-benefit analysis in EU policy making, and particularly the use of IAs. One of the problems, however, is that these IAs by their very nature and design are often very hard for NGOs to access and contribute to. On one of the policies we work on, the Ecodesign of Energy Using Products Directive, we are told that environmental campaign organisations and consumer groups are pretty much kept in the dark about the content of IAs until they are finished – in a very untransparent process that can only favour business lobbies over civil society.

(thanks to our researcher Sophie Mueller-Godeffroy for her help in compiling this blog post)

Lisbon means more power to EU Parliament, citizens, but some confusion too

The Lisbon treaty has been accused of all sorts of things by its opponents, but there is little doubt that it does include new provisions aimed at making European Union workings more transparent. In my view one the most crucial ones is that the Council of Ministers will be forced to become more transparent and make its deliberations public.

Yesterday we also heard some news about changes in the way the European Parliament will relate to the Council of Ministers and the European Commission that could have profound consequences on the way EU affairs are conducted, as a consequence of the Lisbon Treaty coming into force.

Some key changes are:
– the principle of “equal treatment by the Commission for Parliament and the Council of Ministers”. This means MEPs will have more access to meetings and to documentation on the Commission’s meetings with national experts (which can be extremely untransparent at times).

– improved “accountability of the Commission as the EU executive body”, towards the European Parliament. This will include a more “transparent procedure for nominating special representatives and ambassadors”.

– The EU Parliament will start holding a new “Question Hour” with Commissioners during plenary sessions, including the Vice-President for External Relations/High-Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. In addition, if Parliament asks the Commission President to withdraw his confidence in an individual Member of the College, he must seriously consider whether to require the resignation of the Commissioner or explain his refusal to do so before Parliament in the following plenary session.

– Under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament will also gain the power to ask the Commission to enact new legislation. Before Lisbon, this was not possible as the sole right of legislative initiative (the right to propose new laws) was with the EU Commission. Under the rules agreed today, the Parliament will have the right to ask the Commission to legislate on an issue – and there will be clear deadlines for this procedure. In particular, there will be a three-month deadline for the Commission to respond with a concrete follow-up to a legislative initiative report. It will have a year to submit a proposal to Parliament. If no proposal is submitted, the Commission will give detailed explanations to Parliament.

There is very little online information on what these increased legislative powers really mean, but I found this legal explanation on Ralf Grahn’s blog quite useful.

A story on news service Euractiv indicates that these changes in relations between the Parliament and other institutions will be “seismic…it is rumoured that senior people within the Commission are saying that things will never be the same again and that this deal represents a real power gain for the Parliament.”

Of course one of the major changes brought about by the Lisbon Treaty is also – and crucially – that 40 new areas of policy will come under the co-decision process, meaning that the Parliament will have a say where it didn’t have one before, for example in crucial areas of the EU budget and with regards to international treaties.

And yes, more power to the European Parliament also means that more lobbyists are descending to Brussels to try to influence what is becoming a “paradise for lobbyists“. But more powers for the European Parliament also mean more democratic accountability for the EU because MEPs are accessible not just to industry lobbyists but also to a variety of organisations representing civil society. And, increasingly, also to private citizens, thanks also to the growth of social networking such as facebook and twitter.

Of course as always there will be a variety of other factors involved in determining how democratically accountable EU institutions really are, which are outside the scope of these specific changes brought about by the Lisbon Treaty. Poor media coverage in many countries will continue to keep the EU out of sight for most citizens. The nasty habit of national politicians blaming problems on the EU when things are bad, and taking credit when things are good will continue to feed misunderstandings and mistrust amongst EU citizens and make them feel disempowered.

Yet the Lisbon Treaty introduces something else which could potentially empower them – the European Citizens’ Initiative. This means that if at least one million citizens request the EU Commission to legislate on an issue, the EU Commission has to consider doing this. It’s still not clear precisely how well it will work, but there is some work going to define it more precisely, to be discussed at a stakeholder forum on the 22nd of February in Brussels. The blog of the Young European Federalists has useful information on the debate going on behind the scenes.

Of course the picture created by Lisbon isn’t completely positive: there is no doubt that the new Lisbon Treaty changes are also creating some confusion, particularly because of the the proliferation of senior roles. As this article by Ian Traynor published yesterday on the Guardian rightly says:

Obama announced last week he was too busy for a slated summit with the Europeans in Madrid in May. The US state department made plain that one reason for Obama’s absence is that, under Lisbon, it was not clear with whom the Americans should be dealing.

Matthias Matthijs, a Washington-based academic who is visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bologna Centre, said the post-Lisbon fiasco over who is in charge may take a year to sort out. That person is supposed to be Van Rompuy or Catherine Ashton, the new EU foreign policy chief also created by the Lisbon treaty. But no one appears to have told the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who took on the rotating six-month presidency of the EU last month determined not to forfeit any of its perks and privileges to Van Rompuy who, under the Lisbon terms, chairs all summits of EU leaders.

There is no doubt there is quite a bit of confusion on this issue. I personally also have some concerns about changes that the Lisbon Treaty has made to the “comitology” process, which may make it even less transparent than it is. I am not an expert on this and would really welcome some feedback from people more in the know.

But focusing solely on the problems created by Lisbon rather than potentially positive changes that are happening definitely does not do this issue justice, nor does it help to make the EU more democratic and transparent.

Web 2.0 for Europe – but careful what you wish for…

While browsing blogs and tweets about the EU today I stumbled upon this very interesting post on Dick Nieuwenhius’ blog which carries an open letter to EU Commission president Barroso and incoming commissioners from the EC’s community of internet editors and webmasters. The title is “Harnessing the power of the Internet for better communication”.

In this letter, Dick and his colleagues make a strong plea for making more use of the full potential of web 2.0 in order to communicate better with EU citizens. I agree with absolutely everything that’s in there, as I think that a genuine revolution is happening which could finally help the EU become less of a mysterious black box for the average citizen. However, rapid technological developments could also do exactly the opposite if the institutions and the wider community of EU policy and communications experts will be too slow to respond.

This is because the rapid development of social networking, such as twitter or facebook can help to spread news to relevant, new audiences – but it may also help to spread misinformation and rumours about the EU if someone wishes to use it that way, and no doubt many will, and already are doing so (for example, this is very obvious to anyone using the European Parliament’s facebook “fan page”).

So my only word of warning would be “be careful what you wish for”! There is also a danger that we will all get caught up in something that generates more and more work and more demands on our limited time without necessarily solving some deeply-rooted, underlying issues related to the way citizens relate to politics more generally. I also don’t totally agree about mainstream media being in such a decline – in fact I think that for anyone working on EU policy achieving coverage on the FT, or perhaps on some specialist media outlet, is still far more important than a bit of buzz on social networks. But I could be wrong of course.

In the meantime, in any case, we have tried to start a web 2.0 revolution of our own, by starting up a new Twitter account for the Coolproducts for a Cool Planet campaign, which we co-manage on behalf of a wide coalition of environmental organisations.