Less than a week after the European Commission released its vision of development cooperation, Piebalgs stressed that investment in social sectors is critical for sustained growth and poverty eradication.
“In the EU Agenda for Change, we have made clear that health and education is a priority and at least 20 per cent of ODA [official development assistance] should be directed to these sectors,” he said. “This is a minimum.”
Piebalgs added that investment in health and education is essential in order to foster a greater level of “maturity” in developing countries, by laying the foundations for good governance. “Good governance does not come from the top down, but from the bottom up,” he said. “We need to build good governance, but it can’t be built without investment in these areas.”
With the 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) fast approaching, the Latvian was keen to stress that the EU has played a significant role in progress made towards the health targets, particularly on child mortality and maternal health. He also argued that EU development aid should focus on strengthening a country’s own health system, with women’s health a good indicator of the general strength of the system in place.
Piebalgs prefaced his comments, however, with a warning that citizens throughout Europe – and beyond – are increasingly questioning the appropriateness of ongoing aid. “This is a fact we can’t deny,” he said, while arguing that the target of providing 0.7 per cent of GNI as ODA – originally agreed in the early 1970s – “has not been abandoned”. “It is important to achieve this goal in a good and positive spirit,” he said. “What we do matters.”
However, some doubts remain among many in the global health community after Piebalgs deflected responsibility for implementation of these social sector commitments to partner countries and EU delegations on the ground. He was also notably silent on the prospect of a concrete EU global health action plan when officially launching the Agenda for Change on Thursday 19 October.
His comments on aid volumes were echoed by Charles Goerens, Luxembourg’s former minister for development cooperation and ALDE coordinator in the European Parliament’s development committee, who said it was “unacceptable” for the EU to fail to meet its aid targets.
Goerens sparked debate among both panellists and audience by going on to argue that it is “absurd” to continue providing aid to emerging economies such as India. “I must insist on the distinction between emerging countries and low income countries. Development aid is supposed to alleviate poverty, and we must concentrate on the poorest of the poor,” he said. “It is an absurd situation that emerging donors are also recipient countries… We must withdraw step by step from these countries as the money already exists.”
Sunita Grote, from the India HIV/Aids Alliance, was quick to point out that the right to health is far from being realised in her country, with millions of citizens living below the poverty line despite massive economic growth. Rather than “walking away” from these countries when the job is “only half done”, EU development assistance should focus on the poorest people, not simply the poorest countries.
This equity focused approach to development is the only way to ensure the MDG targets are delivered on time, according to Marie Staunton, CEO of Plan UK and Interact Worldwide. And, with much the discourse currently on delivering results and securing value for money, she argued that this is a smart investment. “The cost effectiveness of investing in the poorest is much greater than investing in everybody,” she said. “An equity focused approach delivers a much larger return on investment, and dedicating 20 per cent of ODA to health and education is an accelerator for growth.”
“We must ensure that we move from poverty to opportunity,” she added.