EU development aid is a complex business implemented through the Commission’s Directorate General for Development cooperation (DEVCO) in Brussels and by EU delegations on the ground. The assistance ranges from small grants for civil society organisations to structural budget support and is disbursed through different geographical instruments and thematic programmes. EU development aid is plagued by a series of shortcomings, some of them not unfamiliar to other aid providers.
- First, the complexity of funding structures has led to spreading assistance too thinly over too many priorities. This also results in a lack of transparency: it is an arduous task to find out how much the EU spends in a particular country or on specific projects.
- Second, the EU approach is essentially geographical with aid allocated through bilateral and regional programmes. There is a risk that regimes that show no willingness to reform may benefit from EU aid because they are part of a particular region. In connection to this, there is also a need to sharpen the political assessment of funding priorities through closer cooperation between the European External Action Service (EEAS) and DEVCO.
- Third, and most crucially, there is substantial criticism of how funding is distributed. Budget support is widely criticized because it is easily open to abuse (including corruption) while also risking legitimizing authoritarian regimes. Funding for local civil society organisations remains complex and difficult to obtain by those who really need it to implement good project ideas. Also, recipient countries often complain that the biggest chunks of allocated funds are absorbed by Western consultancy firms that do short term projects with little continuity or direct benefits for the recipient country.
The economic crisis in Europe forces the EU to rethink development aid. Many European citizens would be surprised to learn about the amounts of funding, the lack of efficiency in disbursing it and in some cases the nature of the regimes in some recipient countries. There is clearly a need for simplification of structures and for targeting money to more tangible projects that have high impact and visibility.