The month of record

Interview Philippe Marchesin : « Une schizophrénie française»

You have to choose between Solidarity or influence. This is the conclusion of the work of Professor Philippe Marchesin*. As France announces a new direction for its development assistance policy, the development cooperation specialist looks back on the evolution of French development assistance, which he considers to be subservient to its foreign policy.You have to choose between Solidarity or influence. This is the conclusion of the work of Professor Philippe Marchesin*. As France announces a new direction for its development assistance policy, the development cooperation specialist looks back on the evolution of French development assistance, which he considers to be subservient to its foreign policy.

Interview by DBM 

In your book, you look back on fifty years of French development assistance. You make the observation that it does not work. Why, do you think? 

Because we have never proceeded in the right way. We started with development aid – the cooperation of yesteryear – which was above all a continuation of colonization, recalls Albert Bourgi (a French-Senegalese professor of public law and author of the essay “French cooperation policy in Africa: the case of Senegal”, ed.) The situation may have changed ever since, but first there is need to question the quantitative level of this assistance. In the 1960s, official development assistance (ODA) exceeded 1% of GDP – compared to 0.55% today – and this did not change much because the money was not used properly or not as it should have been. 

So how can it be used wisely? We simply have to reread the major texts on ODA, and for France at the moment, it is the law of August 4, 2021, where we can clearly see that official assistance is articulated around several objectives, the first of which is the fight against poverty. This objective, which has been reaffirmed for more than fifty years, is not, in my opinion, taken seriously. We are very far from achieving it, and if we look at the most interesting sectors, education and health, there may be some progress, but it is a bit of a sham. For example, when we talk about aid for education, we could perfectly well include scholarships granted to people who are not very concerned by poverty. Or, if we are talking about a hospital, a health facility in a capital city… I am interested in basic education and primary health. There, the observation is downright bad: if we look at the latest review of French aid by the OECD, in 2018, we see that these key sectors total only 2% of aid. And here again, we should have precise definitions of what is included in this aid: grants, subsidies, loans… It is all very confusing. 

The French Development Agency, which overwhelmingly provides loans, is a bank. We must not forget that”

The French Development Agency, which overwhelmingly provides loans, is a bank. We must not forget that. And it makes profits, earning about 200 million euros a year in profits. Because a loan has to be paid back, and with interest. Therefore, we don’t act against poverty and especially not at the bottom of the scale. We should do less quantitatively and better qualitatively.

Is the current reorientation of French ODA in line with this?

In fact, we have been in the middle of a schizophrenia from the beginning, since the Sarraut plan advocated, as early as 1923, to link duty and interest. And until the aforementioned 2021 law, entitled “Solidarity-Based Development and the Fight against Global Inequality”. Yet, from the very beginning of the 2021 law, we are told that development assistance is a pillar of French foreign policy. And that is contradictory! We cannot do solidarity and influence. You have to choose. And if a choice has to be made, one will choose self-interest over solidarity. Worse, this phenomenon has been further accentuated with the policy of economic diplomacy, introduced by Laurent Fabius (former French Minister of Foreign Affairs, editor’s note). The latter has become the doctrine of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is applied in all sectors. In the end, this diplomacy is more interesting for the donor than for the recipient.

“One of the lessons of the anthropology of development is that we do not develop things, we develop ourselves”

However, one of the lessons of development anthropology is that “we do not develop things, we develop ourselves.” Clearly, how can we have ownership of assistance on the ground if the initiative comes from here?

On the beneficiaries’ side, there is now a desire for more co-development, with a move to give directly to NGOs and companies, to the detriment of the traditional state channels. Is this an approach that you would recommend?

Yes, of course. But in practice, is it really done? A large part of the assistance goes through the States, with a lot of losses afterwards. Taking companies seriously is all very well, but we still need to take into account the industrial fabric, which is essentially made up of very small companies. Similarly, I don’t think that enough attention is paid to the informal sector, which would be very interesting. I have noticed that solidarity in France is practiced in a direct way domestically. As soon as we move to the international level, it becomes an influence. We must draw the consequences and develop direct assistance. We know, for example, that 80% of the poor are in rural areas. So why not concentrate efforts on this sector? We also know that we will need a certain type of agriculture, especially ecological agriculture. Why not provide more direct assistance to farming communities that are moving in this direction? Another point that raises questions: in the course of our work, we have observed that the rate of return of assistance is 90% for multilateral aid. How can we expect this support to be effective on the ground with such rates of return? Yet, as the same time, we are told about “a world in common”, which is AFD’s slogan, like a new paradigm…

“We are still in a perfect schizophrenia, a perfect ambiguity”

But beware, a new paradigm means rethinking the definition, the approach of solidarity. On the one hand, we welcome the increase in assistance, but on the other hand, the original approach to this solidarity is being questioned.  We will have to monitor the way in which the donations resulting from the increase in ODA will be used. We will then see if we are heading towards something that will concretely improve the living conditions of the populations…or not. We can certainly help a few start-ups, but at some point, we must return to the primary objective, which is the fight against poverty. 

The other evolution that poses a problem, at the European level, is the new agreement which will replace the Cotonou agreements. It will result in a marginalization of development since from now on, contrary to the European Development Fund (EDF), which only took into account development, the EU will give several objectives to the successor of the EDF – the Neighborhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) – including development, but that will have to deal with other issues such as security and the fight against immigration.  

In your opinion, what can we expect from this “new deal” promised by the next EU-AU summit?

France is a major European state and will not act differently at the European and national levels. If we want to be coherent, it will go in the same direction, with the concerns of the donor and particularly of France, namely security and immigration. And there, we will not make any progress in terms of development. I would even call it regression, or at least standing still. Sometimes there are real aberrations: the Sahel today imports milk powder from the European Union, whereas if there is a region where there are cattle, it is the Sahel! Similarly, how is it that Nigeria imports oil when it is the continent’s leading producer of black gold?

“Development assistance is used as a lever of its own power rather than as a support to an accompaniment, toa local initiative which would consist, at the most basic level, in triggering a virtuous circle in terms of development”

In the end, development assistance is used as a lever of its own power rather than as a support for accompaniment, for a local initiative that would consist, at the most basic level, in triggering a virtuous circle in terms of development. And when we ask the people in charge of assistance on this subject, we are told “everyone is doing the same”. This is an argument for not changing…

*A specialist in cooperation and development issues, Philippe Marchesin is a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Political Science at the University of Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, where he directed the Master’s degree in Development and International Cooperation and the Master’s degree in African Studies.

Books by Philippe Marchesin

“La politique française de coopération : je t’aide, moi non plus “, L’Harmattan, 2021, 684 pages

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