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DEVELOPMENT: Less Than Half of EU Aid Tackles Poverty

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Sep 16 2008 (IPS) - Less than half of development aid approved by the European Commission is explicitly linked to international objectives on reducing poverty, a new study has found.

Health and education assume a central role in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which were approved by all of the UN’s member countries in 2000. The eight objectives include targets to substantially reduce illiteracy, deaths of mothers during childbirth and of children before their fifth birthday, and the incidence of major diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria by 2010.

Even though the European Union has undertaken to finance the attainment of these goals, its executive branch or commission appears to be attaching less importance to primary education in poor countries than it did at the start of this decade, according to Alliance2015, a coalition of anti-poverty groups.

In a report issued Sep. 16, Alliance2015 stated that the proportion of all development aid funded by the Commission targeting basic schooling fell from 4 percent in 2000 to 1.6 percent in 2006, the latest year for which data is available.

The proportion allocated to health increased from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent over the same period. But the report indicates that much will need to be done if the Commission is to fulfil a pledge it made in 2009 to allocate one-fifth of all aid reserved for programmes in particular regions to health and education.

Vagn Berthelsen, president of Alliance2015, said: “While we have found encouraging progress, there is still a long way to go to ensure that European Commission aid is working towards achieving the MDGs.”

He added: “We are afraid that health and education are being forgotten because donors are more eager to work in sectors where they can win orders for their home businesses. Education and health may not be that sexy to work with.”

The Commission’s total aid commitments for 2006 came to nearly 12 billion dollars, about 20 percent of all development assistance funded by the EU (which then comprised 25 countries) that year.

The report also called into question if EU aid is focused on the world’s poorest nations. Whereas the Commission gave 34 percent of its assistance to countries categorised as ‘least developed’ in 2000, this declined to 27 percent in 2006.

And while the MDGs contain a commitment to halving the number of people who suffer from hunger, none of the 123 ‘indicative programmes’ that the Commission has drawn up to guide its aid activities for particular countries specifically lists hunger eradication as an objective.

The UN’s latest assessment on the international fight against poverty concluded that although the proportion of young children in poor countries who are undernourished fell from 33 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2006, the rate of progress will not be sufficient to halve hunger by 2015. More than 140 million children remain malnourished, according to the UN.

The UN reported, too, that about 38 million children of primary school age in sub-Saharan Africa are out of school, despite substantial progress in boosting enrolment rates since 2000. Another 18 million children do not attend school in southern Asia, even though the enrolment rate there has reached 90 percent.

Simon Stocker, director of Eurostep, a Brussels-based anti-poverty group, suggested that some EU officials believe that the MDGs can be met merely by helping the economies of poor countries. It is essential, he said, that the actual results of aid are carefully monitored.

“Maybe economic growth and infrastructure are an important part of contributing to the MDGs,” he said. “But you also have to realise that economic growth does not necessarily lead to a reduction in poverty.”

Gay Mitchell, an Irish member of the European Parliament (MEP), complained that aid to Africa is not subject to proper democratic scrutiny. Under a system set up by EU governments, such aid is primarily channelled through the European Development Fund. Because this is administered separately from the EU’s main budget, the Parliament does not have the powers to examine how it is used.

Koos Richelle, head of the Commission’s foreign assistance department EuropeAid, agreed that screening of aid is necessary. The Commission, he noted, has been in favour of incorporating aid to Africa into the EU’s budget for 15 years, but this has been rejected by the Union’s governments.

Richelle queried if it is correct for anti-poverty activists to insist on major increases in funding for primary schools. “Basic education is the gospel of donors now and it is good to have a focus. But we see that in some countries enrolment is now almost 100 percent. Boys and girls can now see that they have no secondary education.”

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