EU aid puts health on the back seat

Brussels, David Cronin - MAIL AND GUARDIAN

The European Union is failing to prioritise health and education in its plans for spending aid in poor countries, according to a new study, which also found that the EU appears to be using development aid to promote Western political and commercial interests, rather than to alleviate hardship. Alliance2015, a coalition of anti-poverty networks, contends that the EUs lack of focus on health and education will put the achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in jeopardy.

All eight of these goals to reduce the most extreme forms of poverty by 2015 have a health or education dimension. They include major reductions in infant mortality and the incidence of serious diseases and ensuring that all boys and girls can complete a full round of primary education. Between this year and 2013, nearly 23-billion from the European Development Fund will be given to the African, Caribbean and Pacific bloc. Officials working for the European Commission are currently finalising a series of country strategy papers to determine how this aid should be used. Sixty one of the draft papers have been analysed by Alliance2015, which found that just two of these aid plans propose to make health a priority sector and only five contain such a suggestion for education.

The coalition notes that a staggering 44 of these strategy papers foresee no support for health whatsoever. By contrast, 19 recommend that transport should be a priority. The study illustrates a gap between the commissions ostensibly pro-poor rhetoric and the reality of its aid programmes. EU publications have recognised, the study notes, that there is a chronic shortage of teachers, doctors and nurses in poor countries. While Africa suffers from 25% of the worlds burden of diseases, it has only 3% of the worlds health professionals. Marielle Hart of the Stop Aids Alliance said that Zambia is among the African countries that have asked the commission to prioritise health, but that such requests have been turned down. Health is not even a priority for the commission in a country like Zambia, where 18% of the population are infected with HIV, she said. This is shocking. Alliance2015 also points out that the proportion of total EU aid for basic education fell from 4% in 2000 to just 2,7% in 2005.

This is despite the fact that, since 2001, EU rules have stipulated that at least 20% of its development assistance should go to health and education. Paddy Maguinness, a spokesperson for the coalition and for Irish organisation Concern, said there are grounds enough for the EUs financial watchdog, the Court of Auditors, to investigate if the unions rules are being broken. The findings of this report are seriously worrying, not just the fact that allocations for health and education are going down, but more particularly that the reductions are most noticeable in the case of Africa, he said. The report claims, too, that the commission may not be able to present an accurate picture in the years to come of how the aid it administers is being used.

The commission is hoping to transfer half of its aid directly to the treasuries of recipient countries in order to promote the concept that they own the money involved. One drawback of these transfers is that the commission will have no control over how aid is ultimately used and will struggle to say how much of it goes to particular sectors. European taxpayers are entitled to a truthful picture of how European Commission money is actually being used, explains Vagn Berthelsen, president of Alliance2015. In May, Louis Michel, the European commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, announced that the level of assistance to particular countries will be partly determined through a governance facility.

Under this facility, countries are rewarded for good governance, which is measured by a checklist of 23 indicators. Only one of these relates to the Millennium Development Goals the others concern matters such as a recipient countrys willingness to liberalise trade and take part in anti-terrorism initiatives. The governance facility is all about persuading African countries to address issues such as migration, trade liberalisation and counter-terrorism, said Berthelsen. It is preposterous to claim that we are trying to support the Millennium Development Goals by tackling unrelated issues that are clearly more important to Europe.