IT’S WORTH CONSIDERING for a moment why Bill Gates came to visit Ireland en route to a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last month. He didn’t come to talk to Enda Kenny about computers. He came here to talk to the Government about addressing global poverty.
That’s important because, as an influential figure who heads up one of the world’s biggest philanthropic development funds, he recognised Ireland’s strong international reputation in helping poor and marginalised people around the world. And he came to encourage Ireland to stay the course and continue to build our own prosperity by investing in peace and development.
Gates’ message was also one of disquiet. In particular, he expressed concern about the direction the EU aid budget is going. As a fan of EU overseas aid himself, Bill Gates highlighted one of the key asks of Irish development NGOs: defend Europe’s overseas aid budget.
This week, European leaders will meet in Brussels to reach a deal on the bloc’s €1 trillion budget for the next seven years. About three-quarters of EU spending currently goes on farm subsidies, infrastructure and other projects in Europe’s poorer regions, and the remainder is spent on areas such as research, overseas aid and education.
A first round of talks among EU leaders ended in deadlock last November because they could not agree on where cuts to the budget should be made. EU Council President Herman van Rompuy answered this with a new proposal to reduce the overall budget by €80 billion.
But the cuts were not made evenly. The EU’s overall budget for foreign action – originally €70 billion – is set to be cut by 13 per cent, and a separate budget for overseas development may be cut by 11 per cent. These cuts are disproportionate when compared to the modest cuts of around 4 per cent to areas such as farm subsidies and regional development.
EU leaders seem intent on reducing the EU’s investment in global stability, human rights and overseas aid as some countries jockey to ‘bring something back’ for their domestic voters.
Irish development NGOs do not want to see the aid budget used as a bargaining chip in these negotiations. And neither does the Irish Government, who has said that tackling global poverty and climate change will be a key theme for Ireland’s EU Presidency.
The ‘Global Europe’ budget is about building the EU’s influence in the world and using that in part to promote greater levels of global peace and stability, as the EU so successfully achieved after World War II. As part of this, the EU provides overseas aid to address extreme instances of poverty and inequality that drive many of the factors that would otherwise lead to global instability. It also funds major infrastructural projects like roads, and invests in social services.
As the world’s largest overseas aid donor – €11.5 billion in 2011 – the EU has been a powerful force for positive change, and study after study has demonstrated how effective EU aid is. For example, 24 million people are no longer hungry, and EU aid has given nine million children a primary education.
This has not gone unnoticed: opinion polls across all EU member states show consistent and high levels of public support for EU aid – 85 per cent of citizens recently polled think the EU should spend more. Remarkably, these levels of support are found even in countries severely hit by the recession such as Spain and Ireland, where support has in fact risen.
Aid = increased global trade
So, does it make sense to see the EU aid budget as a luxury to be spent only in the good times? Or should we, rather, consider aid as part of a wider EU strategy to create prosperity and jobs in Europe by creating better conditions around the world?
A recent analysis found that the EU’s aid budget would actually pay for itself over the next seven years due to the positive effects it would have on the global economy. By sowing the seeds of peace, stability and growth in poorer regions of the world, we, too, would benefit from increased trade, which in turn generates jobs.
Bill Gates was right to highlight the importance of the EU budget as well as the fact that there is very little public debate about these negotiations. And particularly in Ireland, the country charged with brokering agreement on the priorities, there should be a great deal more awareness of the issues at stake.
When the EU’s finance ministers meet this week, they should remember that global challenges such as the recession and climate change need to be tackled together. We hope, in their negotiations, they will show solidarity with those facing the worst effects of poverty and marginalisation and defend the EU’s overseas aid budget.
Hans Zomer is Director of Dóchas, the Irish Association of Development NGOs, which represents 49 agencies working in the area of humanitarian and development aid. Visit www.worldwewant.ie to read more about the Irish EU Presidency and global development.