EU aid policy: Contrasting rhetoric with reality

The literature on the allocation principles of aid tries to establish what drives the allocation of what is formally defined as Official Development Assistance (ODA). Though there is a non trivial degree of variation, the consensus is that aid by developped countries has been and continues to be largely allocated following the interests of donors rather than recipients. This is done against the backdrop of a fairly low degree of domestic politicisation.

The EU, and within it, its executive arm the European Commission (EC),  is often the focal point for much hope as well as criticisms. Some see it as a supranational actor with higher values, somehow transcending the flaws that affect its Member States, and as a result better placed to handle aid policy. Others contend that its fundamentally technocratic and illegimate nature can hardly be appropriate for the disbursement of aid which funding lies primarily with EU Member States.

A significant thrust of EC rhetoric in development policy revolves around the elimination of poverty. This rhetoric however is not born out by trends in EC aid allocation. For instance, the relative share of EC aid to Sub-Saharan Africa has decreased in the past two decades. In addition, this has happened in the context of an increased share of global ODA to this region (from 30.9% in 1990 to 38.3% of the total in 2006-2007).

This relative reduction of EC aid on poorer region is the result of a reallocation towards regions that are, on average, better off than SSA, namely  Europe and  North Africa. As an illustration, the EC’s relative presence in North Africa increased massively: in the period 1987-1996, EC ODA accounted for 9.5% of the total, by 2002-07 it accounted for 40.3% of the total inflow of ODA in this region.

Among the main reasons for diverging trends, the end of the cold war and its implications for potential European enlargement to Eastern countries, meant that African Carribean Pacific (ACP) countries were partly replaced as the focus of EC aid. In the case of the shift of EC ODA to North Africa and the Middle East, an important factor is the rising prominence on the EC agenda of security threats posed by terrorism as well as migration. These concerns were further institutionalised in the EC via its neighbourhood policy which found its roots in the Barcelona Accord in 1995.

Thus, EC aid seems to be increasingly characterised by a conflict between an allocation of aid focused on need and one that strive to secure Europe's neighbourhood. Recent trends do not suggest that the EU has proved to be a more transparent or more altruistic donor.


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