Three ways of looking at the EU’s Development Policy

By Sarah Delputte and Simon Lightfoot | EADI/ISS Blog Series

A few weeks ago, the new European Commission was established without a Commissioner for Development. Instead, Jutta Urpilainen from Finland will take up the newly named portfolio of “International Partnerships”. In the past decade, the EU’s development policy has been confronted with many different changes and challenges to the extent that one might speak of ‘the end of EU development policy’.  Most often, critics in policy and scholarly circles thereby point to the far-reaching dismantling of the “traditional” development policy principles. This evolution is defined as a “change from normative exceptionalism to a more interest-driven approach to development cooperation”.

Whereas the development discourse of the early 1990s and the early 2000s clearly originated in a sense of ‘moral duty’ to eradicate poverty, since the second half of the 2000s we can clearly see a shift towards a stronger emphasis on the EU’s own interests. The adoption of the EU Global Strategy (2016) and the New European Consensus on Development (2017) only seem to consolidate this evolution. However, this debate suggests a rather false dualism between a ‘morally good’ and a realist ‘selfish’ approach to development. A third critical perspective is necessary to engage in a more profound assessment of how fundamentally EU development policy is really changing. In this blogpost we briefly discuss these three ways of looking at the changes in the EU’s Development policy, taking the name-change of the Development portfolio into ‘International Partnerships’ as an illustration. In doing so, we aim to stimulate a more fundamental debate on the EU’s role as a so-called ‘Development’ actor within the EADI Working Group and beyond.

Development for foreign policy

Driven by a more ‘realist worldview’ in which ‘competition’, ‘conflict’, ‘power politics’ and ‘national interests’ dominate state interactions, the EU’s development policy is stated to be increasingly driven by migration, trade, and security objectives at the expense of a commitment to international solidarity and global justice. In this sense, EU development policy mirrors the spirit of the EU’s Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy which stated that EU development policy “will become more flexible and aligned with our strategic priorities”. A good illustration of this shift is the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), which was established at the migration summit in Valetta in 2015, to address the so-called “root causes of destabilization, forced displacement and irregular migration”. From a realist perspective, the rebranding of the European Commission’s Development portfolio into ‘International Partnerships’ may involve a shift towards a more ‘strategic’ approach with ‘developing countries’, in line with Von Der Leyen’s ambition to become a ‘geopolitical Commission’.

Development to help the poorest

The evolution towards a more interest-driven approach to EU development has been strongly criticized by various scholars, NGOs, think tanks and officials working on EU Development. These deplore the shift away from a value-based development policy which puts poverty eradication as the primary objective. For example, the above mentioned EUTF has been widely contested by all major civil society organizations and think tanks working on development. There is a widespread fear that development aid is misused for the EU’s interest in terms of controlling and restricting migration at the expense of the EU’s primary commitment to poverty eradication. Arguably, this perspective also nourishes a certain nostalgia to the period of “European normative exceptionalism” during the so-called new season in EU development in the early 2000s.

This conception of development starts from a more liberal cosmopolitan worldview, in which international cooperation and solidarity function as the central tenets. Accordingly, the EU’s international identity should be built on its normative engagement towards the “developing world”. This resonates very well with the slogans of the EU as the ‘largest donor in the world’ and ‘the world’s leading development actor’. Ideally, from this perspective, the name-change of the Development portfolio into ‘International Partnerships’ should signal a focus on establishing ‘true partnerships’, based on the principle of respecting ownership. However, given the current context, some observers have warned against the loss of focus on ‘development’. Or as the Director of CONCORD – the European confederation of Relief and Development NGOs – Tanya Cox commented on the new Commission: “Development is more than just partnerships”.

Towards a problematization of ‘Development’?

A third assessment of how fundamentally EU development policy has been changing, is less widespread and inspired by insights on post-development. This perspective helps to go beyond the dichotomy between a ‘morally good’ and a realist ‘selfish’ approach which is adopted most frequently to assess the changes in EU Development. From this perspective the very notion of development (policy) is problematized as it is inherently based on a dominance of western perspectives on what constitutes the ‘good life’. From this point of view, the EU’s development policy contributes to the reproduction of structural patterns of exploitation and power asymmetries. Consequently, talking about ‘partnerships’ via development policy without tackling the underlying structural injustices, does not herald any structural change. On the contrary, the name change of the portfolio can be interpreted as yet another reinvention of the Eurocentric modernist development paradigm to save itself against the various pressures.

With these insights in mind, the EADI Working Group on “The European Union as a Development Actor”  is co-convening two panels at the  EADI/ISS General Conference 2020 . In the first (harvest) panel on “Partnerships or development in EU external relations?”, in collaboration with the “Development Cooperation Policies and Performance” Working Group, we aim to make sense of the current challenges to EU Development policy, taking into account the different ways to look at them. More specifically, we aim to unravel the evolution from a social justice norm-based approach to a more instrumentalised and pragmatic approach and explore the role and impact of increased internal contestation and politicization. In the second (seed) panel on “Views on the EU as a development actor in conversation with post-development”, in collaboration with the EADI Working Group on “Post- and Decolonial Perspectives on Development”, we aim to explore ways of incorporating post-development insights into our analysis of EU development policy. More specifically, we aim to discuss what post-development means in practice at the policy level and how ‘alternatives (to) EU development policy’ could look like.

This article is part of a series launched by  EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the ISS Blog.

Sarah Delputte is post-doctoral researcher and lecturer and the Centre for EU Studies at Ghent University and co-convenor of the EADI working group on the EU as a development actor.

Simon Lightfoot is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds and co-convenor of the EADI working group on the EU as a development actor.

Image: The European Parliament