The future of development cooperation: Six ways the EU can innovate

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As a mantra for organisations and business, ‘innovation’ too often becomes a catchphrase devoid of meaning. But what is innovation exactly, and what does it mean in terms of EU international cooperation? The European Think Tanks Group has explored these questions with Bill Gates and Federica Mogherini in a public event held at the European Parliament on 17 October.

‘Last year the European Union and its member states have invested more in development cooperation than the rest of the world combined, which is over 50 percent of global official development assistance’, said Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, during the public debate. It is critical that the EU maintains its leading role in protecting and promoting the idea of development cooperation.

That will not be easy, given a global context in which the world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, the gap between the richest and poorest in the world is widening, and environmental degradation and demands on natural resources will need to be confronted. Finding innovative and more effective approaches to tackle complex global challenges will be essential for the EU to fulfill its commitment towards sustainable development.

Innovation does not mean invention at any cost, but rather the ability to combine existing elements and tools in a new way. It is necessary to go beyond the simple looking forward approach, which we are trained to take from an early age, and to take a side view of things.

Take for example football. A good player does not have to look only where the ball goes, but she or he has to watch the whole field, the whole game. We all know what we need to do: score a goal, create new jobs in Africa, improve education, tackle economic inequalities and so on. The question is how we can do all of this with the tools and resources we have, in that limited football field. We don’t need another list of priorities and goals, but effective mechanisms and ways to engage and implement.

During the European Think Tanks Group conference, we identified six ways for the EU to facilitate innovation in development cooperation:

1. Improve the coordination of actions on the ground between institutions and member states, by increasing joint programming or mobilisation of other existing tools, like trade preferences or security cooperation.

2. Modernise the partnership with the United Nations and other regional organisations. A good example is the partnership between the European Union, United Nations and African Union to address the migration challenge, and which is now moving towards other sectors such as development, humanitarian aid and security.

3. Invest in locally-driven solutions identifying and supporting innovators in emerging countries, whether they are local authorities, private individuals or NGOs, since proximity to the challenge is critical for designing better responses. As the only continent that will experience exponential demographic growth in the next decades, Africa will soon be faced with a major youth unemployment problem. This issue can be addressed through the widespread network of small enterprises and the support to African innovators, rather than focusing only on the creation of big business districts.

4. Overcome the traditional donor-recipient approach and develop a real partnership with Africa, focusing on common projects and work, through incentives for joint programming. In February 2020, the current partnership agreement between the EU and the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, the so-called Cotonou Agreement, expires. There is an opportunity to revise existing structures, roles and priorities, taking into account the global changes of the last 20 years, which will undoubtedly have a massive impact on a new partnership agreement.

5. Explore new ways to engage with the private sector (for example with the External Investment Plan for Africa to attract private investments to the regions that need it the most). Innovative financial instruments can be used to leverage funding for development from the private sector, like solidarity funds, micro donations, multi-donor mechanisms and blending. Engaging the private sector and promoting business creation also means supporting vocational training, access to technology, and investing in sectors with incremental job creation, such as energy or agribusiness.

6. Take risks and navigate uncertainty in an informed manner, using research and data to learn and improve. The EU should demonstrate the high potential of an idea or solution to achieve significant impact before scaling up.

In development cooperation to take a side view means connecting actors and tools, re-defining existing relations and imagining what is coming next. In an age of populism, when media are sometimes abdicating from asking the pressing questions, think tanks can take on this role and challenge decision makers, providing such side view. A network of think tanks, such as the ETTG, also has the capacity to mobilise multiple views and feel the gap between scattered information, real needs and innovative responses at the local level and EU policy level.

Executive Summary of the research conference “Innovation in Development: The future of EU international cooperation” – 18 October 2018

Author: Giulia Maci, ETTG Coordinator

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ETTG

Image courtesy of Art Bromage via Flickr.

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