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25th Feb 2024

Dwindling EU development aid spent on deporting refugees, museum gift shops

  • People browsing for gifts and souvenirs (Photo: stevendamron)

'Charity begins at home' goes the old maxim, and when it comes to aid for the third world, Europe very much adheres to this motto.

As the economic crisis pinches national budgets, EU member states' funds set aside for development are dwindling and increasingly being used instead as channels for public cash for domestic companies and promoting national vested interests rather than poverty reduction in the poorest of countries.

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Some states are even counting the cost of deporting refugees back to their home countries as 'development aid'.

"The EU is becoming very opportunistic in terms of aid. The definition of aid is changing," says Hussaini Abdo, country director for Action Aid in Nigeria, a UK-based development group. "Spending can go instead on debt relief, repatriating migrants."

"There is even talk of counting remittances - the money sent home by immigrants. This is taking the fruits of the labour of migrants and calling that aid."

According to an annual report from Concord, an alliance of Europe's main development NGOs and charities, published on Thursday (10 June), EU development aid for 2009 amounted to €49 billion, one billion less than in 2008.

In 2005, EU states committed to achieving 0.56 percent of gross national income (GNI) for development by 2010, but the sums committed as of this year amount to 0.42 percent of GNI of national income, and well off course from achieving the 0.7 percent of GNI to be met by 2015.

Together this amounts to an €11 billion shortfall, with some of the bloc's major economies responsible for much of the drop: Italy (€4.5bn), Germany (€2.6bn) and France (€800m).

But countries are changing what they mean by development aid and regularly include debt cancellation, spending on student exchanges and refugee costs as spending on aid: €1.4 billion on debt, €1.5 on students and almost a billion on deportation and other refugee expenditure.

When these sums are stripped out, the real spending on aid comes to just 0.38 percent of GNI in Europe and a shortfall of €19 billion on prior commitments.

A number of countries, notably France and Italy, have made agreements with developing countries that force them to co-operate on repatriation of migrants before they can access the aid, making development aid into a tool of anti-immigrant policies.

The report notes that until recently this had been done on the quiet, but with countries seeing the popular support they can win from a tough-on-immigration stand, they have begun to announce such moves officially, with large amounts going towards re-inforcing border controls and security training in neighbouring and Mediterranean countries.

Instead of providing money to those countries that most need the cash, EU countries also tend to focus their aid on neighbouring countries, those with key geopolitical interests or where they can best tie aid to employing domestic firms to realise projects.

In 2008, the top ten recipients of EU aid included Afghanistan, Turkey and Palestine. Iraq alone received a full 10.5 percent of European aid. Some 18 percent of the European Commission's development budget in the same year went to EU pre-accession countries and those in the bloc's neighbourhood policy.

Very little actually makes its way to the least developed countries - known as 'LDCs' in development jargon, such as those in Africa. So far only five EU countries - Luxembourg, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands have managed to deliver 0.15 percent of GNI to LDCs, and yet this was a commitment made by all western EU states as part of the 'Brussels Declaration' in 2001.

Countries often use aid to funnel money to domestic companies. Aid to China makes up a large proportion of Polish aid and aims to boost national exports for example. This sort of activity, termed 'tied aid' has existed for as long as governments have offered development assistance, but in the last few years, this has taken off as a share of aid.

The poverty focus of aid is drifting. In 2008, Greece spent large sums on funding the National Museum of Egyptian Culture in Cairo and training on museum staff in Georgia, including on how to run the gift shop and producing copies of items in the museum.

Five countries tied more than 30 percent of their aid in this way: Spain, Italy, Greece, Austria and Portugal. The latter two are particularly fond of this approach, with 50 percent of aid 'tied' in the case of Austria last year, up from 21 percent the previous year, and a full 70 percent of Portuguese aid.

At the same time, not all countries are moving in this direction. Italy and Greece did actually reduce the amount of tied aid, as did Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Luxembourg and the UK have policies of no official tied aid, although de facto untying has been more difficult to achieve, with four fifths of all aid contracts for large projects still flowing to national companies in countries such as the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands.

As a result of the drop in spending, African countries are coming to the conclusion that Africa will not be able to meet any of its Millennium Development Goals, the eight targets agreed in 2000 by 192 UN member states for third world countries to achieve by 2014, such as eradicating extreme poverty and reducing child mortality - "Not because of a lack of commitment from African leadership, but because the resources necessary simply have not been delivered," according to Mr Abdo.

"Across the continent, some 70 percent of people now live below the poverty line [$1 a day], which rises to 90 percent in countries such as Niger, Mali and Malawi."

After some years of improvements, he said, the continent is now seeing reversals.

"More people are now dying from malaria than Aids, maternal and child mortality are increasing."

"Even on governance, after years of expanding multi-party democracy, a reversal is happening here as well, with countries returning to authoritarianism and one-party holds on power," he said, highlighting Ethiopia, Niger, Guinea and Madagascar.

"This is the predictable response to shrinking resources."

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