Migration focus overshadows poverty reduction in development aid

Short-term political response to the migration crisis in several cases appears to have undermined routines for effective aid, and settlements for refugee costs make up a large proportion of today's aid budgets. This shows a new one investigation report from the Expert Group for Aid Analysis, EBA. In parallel with discussions on how development assistance can be used to more systematically address migration flows, we must conduct a fact-based debate on the type of initiatives that are valuable from a broader development perspective, write the report authors Anna Knoll and Andrew Sherriff.

Europe's heads of government will meet on Friday in Valletta, Malta, to discuss how to work more closely with North African countries such as Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. The purpose is both to save lives and to prevent irregular migration[I] to Europe. High on the agenda is also to mobilize resources to these countries. Increased aid is one of the things that the European Commission recommends that the Heads of State approve during the meeting.

This illustrates a broader trend in Europe where aid is increasing. The large influx of refugees and irregular migrants in recent years has had a major impact on aid in a number of European countries and in the European Commission. We have seen rapid changes in both the design and volume of development assistance, and changes in thematic priorities. European states are quick to highlight the great sacrifices they have made by financing political commitments, but these sacrifices seem to have negative consequences in the long run.

Looking at development assistance in relation to migration provides new opportunities to pursue important dimensions of Agenda 2030, but at the same time it risks becoming increasingly donor- and interest-driven development assistance. Poverty reduction and sustainable development risk being given lower priority when deciding how aid should be distributed. Short-term political response to the migration crisis already seems to have undermined donors' own routines for effective aid in several cases. Negative consequences have been noted, for example, in terms of analysis and quality assurance, and in relations with local partners in developing countries.

Through five case studies (EU Commission, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden) we have been able to see that recent developments have far-reaching potential consequences for development aid and development cooperation - even if the purpose has only been to "handle" the refugee crisis. Governments have acted differently on how aid has been used - protecting refugees within Europe or providing support to migrants' countries of origin, host and transit outside Europe - something that has raised a number of important issues.

More aid, but at the same time greater pressure on aid budgets

At least until 2015, the EU's total assistance from Member States and the European Commission has increased every year. In 2015, it amounted to 68 billion Euros, compared to 59 billion the year before. This increase can largely be linked to the sharp increase in the number of refugees and migrants to Europe. Critics have pointed out that a large part of this aid increase is not used for poverty reduction or support for sustainable development, but has been spent in Europe. According to OECD guidelines, costs incurred in handling refugees and receiving asylum seekers (during the first year since “reception”) can be counted as assistance, and such expenditure accounted for a large proportion of assistance in 2015.

Sweden spent as much as 33,8% of its aid on support for refugees in Sweden. The corresponding figure for the Netherlands was 22%. Denmark reported 15,5% and for Germany, costs have jumped to 17%, from just 1% the year before. This has created questions about how such costs should be reported and what development assistance funds are actually used for in their own countries. In Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, for example, there has been criticism that private landlords and property owners make large profits from providing refugee housing that is financed with development assistance.

But even though development assistance increased in 2015, high costs for protecting asylum seekers have put great pressure on development assistance budgets and given rise to difficult trade-offs - not least because such costs are very unpredictable. When we have studied the national budgets of a number of countries in more detail, we have seen that increased funding for refugee reception has taken place at the expense of ongoing and planned development assistance efforts in partner countries. In some countries, flexibility and scope for future assistance have also decreased.

Increased focus on using development assistance to address migration abroad

The migration situation has also led to a political focus on increasing both development cooperation and political cooperation with countries from which many people migrate. The collaboration takes place in areas that address either what are perceived to be the root causes of migration or how migration is managed. This results in changes in the geographical focus of development assistance, and to some extent also in the thematic focus. Although not all of this can be deduced from existing development assistance statistics, new, more long-term strategic considerations relating to migration are likely to play a major role in future policy, implementation and distribution of development assistance. Some donors have included migration-related indicators in their criteria for allocating aid. This applies to the new one, for example European Trust Fund for Africa which focuses on "migration countries" in Africa. This new situation, where development actors now first and foremost need to demonstrate the contribution of development assistance to better migration management, may be something we will have to live with for a longer period of time in the future. In some countries, aid has been partly redesigned as its raison d'être is based on the ability to respond quickly to migratory flows and political events.

With ongoing discussions about how development assistance can be used to more systematically address migration and its root causes, there is a need to continuously conduct a fact-based debate on the type of activities and programs that are valuable from a broader sustainable development perspective. It requires that there is a well-designed process for follow-up and reporting, as well as robust evaluation mechanisms for migration-related assistance and that learning from previous experiences is a priority. This will not only be important for the sake of transparency but also to facilitate the exchange of experience for a more balanced approach to migration through EU assistance.

Anna Knoll & Andrew Sherriff

[I] An irregular migrant is defined according to the ICHR as a person who has no legal status in a transit or host country.

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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