Challenges to EU Development Policy: Paradigm Lost or Stretched?

by Sarah Delputte and Jan Orbie

European Union (EU) development policy seems plagued by many challenges from within and outside. We argue that underlying these challenges lay more fundamental problems with the Eurocentric, modernist and colonial paradigm of EU development policy. We witness some cracks in the pillars of the current paradigm, namely in the form of policy failures, epistemic changes, and power shifts. However, this seems unlikely to entail radical paradigm change. Instead of moving in the direction of post-development, we merely observe experimental approaches stretching the prevailing paradigm. Paradigm change?

The EU is widely considered to be an important actor in the field of development. EU policy-makers take pride in the EU being “the world’s largest donor” and a “leader” in development cooperation. However, EU development is also plagued by many challenges. Member states continue to guard their own development policies. Trade, migration and security agendas seem to trump ‘pure’ development goals. New powers such as China pursue ostensibly different development agenda’s while African countries display a growing assertiveness towards the EU.

However, there is need for a more fundamental understanding of the current challenges to EU development policy that also problematizes the underlying development paradigm. The insights of post-development and paradigmatic change are key to understand the (in-)significance of the current challenges as well as to think about future (alternative) scenarios. More specifically, current challenges to EU development policy can be considered as cracks in the pillars of the Eurocentric, modernist and colonial (or EMC) paradigm, and its current post-Washington Consensus variant. Indeed, we see many significant manifestations of (1) policy failures, (2) epistemic change and (3) power shifts that severely challenge the EMC paradigm.

Yet, these pressures also constitute the necessary conditions for paradigmatic change. Hence, the question arises whether these changes are fundamental enough for a paradigmatic change or whether they only lead the EU to reinvent the wheel within the same paradigm?


Cracks in the pillars

First, at the level of policy failures, the EU still faces continuous criticism of lacking development impact.  In response, the EU has launched several flagship initiatives to improve its ‘development effectiveness’ like Policy Coherence for Development and more European coordination. Nevertheless, these have largely failed to deliver. The EU still seriously lacks coherence on many development issues, including in trade, fisheries, migration or security. And despite the development of various coordination instruments, such as Joint Programming, the EU largely fails to coordinate in practice. While the EU has partly recognized these failures, there is no evidence of a sense of crisis in Brussels. Quite the contrary, the EU continues to pride itself of being the biggest donor and a leading development actor.

Second, we find some epistemic shifts in the EU’s established policy and knowledge institutions, in response to the policy failures and the changing development landscape. For instance, by emphasizing a more ‘global’ approach in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a more ‘comprehensive’ approach through the nexuses with migration, trade, security and climate. The EU’s current development paradigm is being stretched so far that one cannot longer speak of a clear and coherent view on what development (policy) is and should be, as seen from the European Consensus on Development document issued in 2017. However, the fundamentals of the EMC paradigm are not put into question.

Third, EU development cooperation has undergone significant power shifts in favour of actors who do not entirely share the Post-Washington Consensus. Internally, the European Commission’s administration dealing with development has shrunk in size and relevance, while other bureaucracies, including the European Commission’s DG Trade, DG Home, DG Near and the European External Action Service (EEAS) became more powerful. Worldwide the development landscape has changed drastically, with the BRICS and increased African agency. Again, however, these do not (yet) fundamentally question the fundamentals of the EMC paradigm. Supporters of a new (post-development?) paradigm have not (yet) occupied authority positions. Policy-makers in positions of authority pay at best lip service to alternatives to development visions.

Experimental governance

In sum, we witness some cracks in the pillars of the current paradigm, but no destabilization of the EMC enterprise. There are no signs of a fully recognized crisis of EU development policy, that is challenged by a clear alternative paradigm, and supported by powerful people and institutions. Interestingly, the typical way to deal with such ‘cracks’ is to engage in policy experiments. These serve to save or ‘reinvent’ the current paradigm but they may also induce paradigmatic change.

Recent examples include the creation of trust funds and investment facilities. Since 2013, the EU has created trust funds which allow for quicker and ‘more efficient’ interventions and enhance the EU’s political visibility and strategic interests. The Migration Trust Fund is the most well-known example. Since 2010, the EU has also created a series of investment facilities to leverage support for big investment projects. These facilities allow for blending, i.e. the combination of grants from EU aid with loans or equity from other public and private institutions. Other examples of such experiments include the funding of the African Peace facility, the stretching of the ODA definition or the use of cash transfers and vouchers in the field of humanitarian aid.

Paradigm streched

Can these experiments lead to paradigm change? They rather seem to stretch the prevailing paradigm, whereby post-development, or other challengers, might be coopted. Current challenges and ongoing experiments may lead the end of EU development policy as we know it, to become more marketized, or more securitized, or more focused on charity, but we do not think that this involves a real paradigm change. We would encourage a more profound debate amongst policy makers and scholars on the underlying paradigms of EU development policy and alternatives as advanced by post-development thinkers. As the EU’s social and democratic credentials are vitally challenged, this may be the right time to reconsider the so-called ‘European model’ and the EU’s engagement with the rest of the world.

Sarah Delputte is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for EU Studies, and a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Ghent University. Her primary research focus is on the EU’s development policy and EU-ACP cooperation.

Jan Orbie is a professor of political science and director of the Centre for EU Studies at Ghent University (Belgium). His main research interests concern the EU’s external relations and its normative dimensions, with a specific focus on European external trade, development, social, democracy promotion, human rights and humanitarian aid policies.

This blog first appeared on Convivial Thinking. It is based on a forthcoming publication on ‘The end of EU development policy’. We are grateful to the participants of the Development Days Conference 2019 in Helsinki and of the EADI workshop on ‘EU development policy at a crossroad’ in Ljubljana for their valuable comments and insightful discussions.