The EU new Consensus on Development: technocratic solutions are set to fail

Caroline Burleigh // 9 June 2017

The 2005 European Consensus on Development is a policy statement that commits the EU to eradicating global poverty, tackling inequalities, and building a fairer and more stable world. Considering the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, the European Commission (EC) proposes the alignment of the EU development policy with said Agenda, as it is part of the international community’s agreed response to new global trends and challenges of globalisation.


The underlying idea is an ambitious, revised European development policy, addressing in a coherent manner the so-called ‘5Ps’: people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. Hence, in November 2016, the European Parliament (EP) tabled a resolution to increase the effectiveness of development cooperation, followed by a resolution to revise the 2005 European Consensus on Development (ECD) in February 2017. Apart from the lofty goals of eradicating global poverty and diminishing inequalities, the EP has pledged more inclusive partnerships, transparency and accountability in its future collective development policy.


This all sounds quite noble, yet from the Council and Commission statements on the New European Consensus on Development – our world, our dignity, our future, which took place during the EP plenary session on 31st May 2017, it was difficult to make out further details of what a revised ECD would entail. Indeed, the whole session was rather disappointing, to say the least.


To begin with, the Council of the EU emphasised the primacy of poverty eradication within the EU development framework, along with stressing the importance of embedding security issues into the overall consensus. Furthermore, Mr. Mimica, Commissioner for International Cooperation & Development praised the EU as the world’s largest development actor, while stating that an ambitious ECD is essential to maintain this leading position. According to Commissioner Mimica’s statement, the EU strives not only to be the biggest, but also the most effective development actor worldwide. Eradicating poverty, is suggested to go hand in hand with ‘effectively tackling the root causes of migration’. The overall statements made by the following speakers were not particularly inspiring, at times even unimpressive. A considerable number of MEPs mentioned the exorbitant costs of Brexit, and the imminent danger of Trump’s planned withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. MEP Valenciano from the Socialists & Democrats even warned that Trump’s withdrawal could bring about the disappearance of international development policy altogether. The direct link between Trump’s climate policy decisions, Brexit, and the eradication of global poverty didn’t appear too obvious.


Although the Socialists & Democrats expressed their partial discontent with the debated motions for resolution, they decided to endorse the proposed revision, to avoid a stagnation of foreign aid. S&D MEP Toia also highlighted the relevance of promoting human rights to tackle development issues. The most striking statement was made by UK MEP Raymond Finch from the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group: He overtly criticised the burdening of European taxpayers with the 0.7% of national GDP development target, when roughly 25% of the EU’s population are threatened by poverty. As an alternative, he suggested liberalising trade with less developed nations. Indeed, a recent EPICENTER briefing on Reforming the Common Agricultural Policy promotes a similar argument: The high tariffs imposed on agricultural imports (e.g. roasted coffee or cocoa) aimed at protecting EU farmers have heavily punished several African countries, by significantly hampering their access to the European market.
Despite criticisms, the new ECD resolution as a whole was adopted on 1st June and officially signed by the President of the European Parliament, the Prime Minister of Malta, on behalf of the Council and member states, the President of the European Commission, and the High Representative, on 7th June


The heated debate over international development policies has led several leading economists, such as Prof. William Easterly[1], to question the efficiency of foreign aid as we know it. Firstly, development cannot necessarily be done from the outside – however well-intentioned, foreign aid might do more harm than good. The promotion of human rights is crucial to allow individuals to be responsible for their own development, in other terms, development must come from within, in an environment of rights, including economic rights, in which people can choose how to use their own land for themselves or for their business customers. We cannot ignore the rights of the poor to choose their own destiny. So-called top-down planning, on the other hand, clashes with this fundamental right.


The concern for the rights of the poor should transcend partisan ideologies in free societies that advocate said rights for themselves. Moreover, Easterly points out the “technocratic illusion” of many development experts, who tend to focus on a purely technical fix to poverty, without bringing politics into the equation. In fact, he introduces a table showing “expert solutions” to African developmental problems in 1938, compared to solutions proposed in the UN report 2005: strikingly, they are one and the same. Hence, one can conclude that these so-called expert solutions did not work then and are not working now. Another interesting point is to not hypocritically criticise African dictators without considering the role of – for example – US and UK foreign policy in strategically supporting them.


The topic of development and foreign aid is bound to be a divisive one. Overall, William Easterly’s findings crush the high hopes of Western politicians and pundits for development aid: he remains convinced that foreign aid on average, has little to no effect on long-term growth. We need to focus all these well-intentioned efforts on the promotion of universal rights and freedoms, that could eventually empower disadvantaged peoples to develop from within. The task ahead is by no means an easy one and there is no quick technical fix that will magically eradicate global poverty. Donating astronomical amounts of money in a frenzy to reach the 0.7% target could lead to waste and inefficiency – or even empower incumbent dictators – rather than being a solution to the problem.


[1] Easterly, W. (2016), The Economics of International Development: Foreign Aid versus Freedom for the World’s Poor, Institute of Economic Affairs, London, UK.

EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).


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