The European Commission (EC) has just released its new proposal for an updated and thoroughly revised European Consensus on Development. The revised consensus is supposed to ensure that EU development cooperation reflects the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by world leaders over a year ago. So, how does it measure up?
The good news
What is particularly commendable is that the EC has managed to cover pretty much every area of the 2030 Agenda, thereby touching on many of the key challenges the world is facing and committing the EU to work on them. It has also tried to make links with the other key international frameworks that have recently been agreed.
There are plenty of mentions of human rights and even quite a few of inequality, where there is a clear focus on addressing gender inequality. A greater focus will also be put on ensuring youth have the skills they need to equip them for life, especially a productive life, and on promoting decent work.
The Consensus recognises the shrinking space for civil society and the need for the EU to support taking governance closer to the people, for example through promoting the participation of civil society in decision-making processes.
However, there is some ‘less good’ news, and the jury is still out on a number of points.
Development for whom?
The Consensus claims that eradicating poverty in all its dimensions “is at the heart of EU development cooperation policy”. However, the rest of the Consensus doesn’t quite match up to this claim, not least because the poorest people are neither clearly mainstreamed into every initiative nor actively targeted. But also because the Consensus doesn’t clearly challenge the underlying causes of multi-dimensional poverty, such as the economic model that the world pursues and the power imbalances between rich and poor – people and/or nations.
Both gender equality and youth have been identified as key drivers of sustainable development with “cross-cutting transformative potential”. However, the implications of this for both young people and girls and women remain unclear, especially for youth who are barely mentioned outside of their ‘box’. Obvious places to reiterate a focus on gender and youth would have been in the sections on migration or sustainable energy.
There is little new in terms of the EU’s proposed approach to girls and women and there is considerable reliance on the Gender Action Plan, which we already know has serious limitations.
Just more business as usual?
Unsurprisingly, a dominant theme in the new Consensus is the need to promote and support economic growth. Unfortunately, the EC has not in any way reflected civil society’s concerns that economic growth does not mean progress for all people, least of all for the most marginalised.
Growth, as we know it today, generally leads to even greater inequality and just putting the words inclusive and sustainable in front of it doesn’t necessarily make it so, unless there is a huge emphasis on privileging the most marginalised in society.
It is far from clear that the current proposals do that, especially given that ‘better sharing the benefits of growth’ does not equate to equitable distribution, let alone focusing on the furthest behind. It’s a shame, but again not altogether unsurprising, that our calls for the EU to look at alternative measures of progress fell on deaf ears.
As for resilience – of course, any effort to increase people’s resilience to shocks, especially conflict- and climate-related shocks is to be supported. But if bolstering people’s resilience comes at the expense of working on the real root causes of problems, then we should be extremely worried. For example, “resilience to socio-economic conditions” could come dangerously close to not dealing with things that are actually human rights violations. People should never have to simply ‘become resilient’ to that.
Private sector and development – a match made in heaven?
The private sector has significant potential as a partner for and in development. But the EU has increasingly been viewing the private sector as its most important partner, and this is reflected in the revised Consensus.
The problem, however, is that realising people’s rights and ensuring sustainable development for all is, generally-speaking, not the private sector’s main motive. At the same time, promoting European private investments abroad should most certainly not be the objective of EU development cooperation.
What is needed, therefore, is full transparency regarding private sector activities in developing countries, as well as a true corporate social and environmental accountability framework. Unfortunately, the Consensus is silent on both these points.
Policy ‘Incoherence’ for sustainable development
One of the biggest disappointments is the complete lack of push-back against some of the negative trends in EU policies of recent months, despite the repeated assertion that the primary aim of development policy is to eradicate poverty. Partly because of the politicisation of migration, we’re seeing worrying initiatives – like the Partnership Framework on Migration and the External Investment Plan, which result in a subversion of development cooperation - being incorporated into the Consensus.
To be fair, the European Commission proposal has moved some way towards civil society’s view of Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development (PCSD) and we’re very glad to see that PCSD will be applied to all policy areas. However, without a complaints mechanism, guarantees to alter policies which will negatively impact on the achievement of sustainable development and human rights, or a redress mechanism, the risk is that PCSD will remain an empty shell.
Despite some promising words in the Consensus, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Does it provide a clear guiding vision? Will it really lead to transformative change for children and women? Will it help the EU to respect all the interlinkages and interdependencies inherent in the 2030 Agenda? These are issues which remain to be seen over the course of its implementation.
Without a root-cause approach which tackles the business as usual models, we won’t see transformative change for children, especially girls, and women. Without a truly new approach, we won’t succeed in achieving human rights and sustainable development for all and in leaving no one behind. The proof of this pudding will certainly be in its eating.