Czech Development Agency head: development aid can help prevent security threats

Georgia, photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency

The Czech Development Agency was set up in 2008, under the Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry, with the aim to help eradicate poverty in the world and contribute to sustainable development. Where is it helping today, how much money is it distributing and how successful is it in improving the lives of people in different parts of the world? Those are just some of the questions I discussed with the head of the agency Michal Kaplan.

Michal Kaplan, photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“The annual budget of the Czech Development Agency is around 20 million euros. Only 5% of this amount is for administration and other costs. The other 95% goes to actual projects and we distribute these projects through non-governmental organizations but also private companies, universities and other state bodies.”

The Czech Development Agency helps in around 15 countries and I believe the aim is to reduce that number in the interest of greater efficiency, is that right?

“Exactly, the OECD which is a club of rich donners recommended us to reduce the number of priority countries so the government of the Czech Republic has selected only six partner countries for long term co-operation, these are mainly Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Georgia, Ethiopia, Zambia and Cambodia. In addition to these six priority countries for long term cooperation there are other countries where the Czech Republic provides some assistance, these are for example; Afghanistan and recently also Ukraine and Syria.”

We have often heard Czech politicians stress that the migrant crisis should be resolved in the countries where it’s originating. To what extent are you able to help there?

“Yes, I agree that development cooperation can solve the root causes of migration in the countries of origin. It’s always better to solve the causes than react to the consequences of migration. For example; in Ethiopia, which is one of our partner countries, there is a problem with lack of water, there are some climate change effects on the people there so we built water wells and provide drinking water to the people so that they can stay in the villages or cities where they are at home, so this is a concrete example of how development projects can be used to prevent migration.”

Is it being used? Is it being used enough by the international community which is definitely trying to stem the flow of refugees, economic refugees, environmental refugees and of course war refugees. The latter is more difficult, but in the former cases you are able to help so is there adequate help being provided to these countries for it to be effective? And I don’t mean just from the Czech Republic.

“Yes, I think there are two questions here. One is about quantity of aid and I think that the world community has been able to scale up global foreign assistance to poor countries so when it comes to quantity of aid I think that the world community is responding to the crisis. The other question is quality and effectiveness of aid and of course we can argue about the effectiveness of assistance but when it comes to the prevention of migration it is a long-term effort. We cannot expect that we will increase assistance and the next month or next year the number of migrants will be reduced. We need to provide these people with an education but education in itself is not enough if we don’t provide them with jobs and to create jobs in poor countries requires also improving the business environment and improving the business environment requires also some reforms at the government level, so development cooperation can help but it also needs to be supported by some reforms from the partner countries themselves and also some political dialogue about these reforms - so it’s a long-term effort.”

Is it ongoing? Have these countries now become priority countries for you?

“Yes, for the European Union definitely these countries which are origins of migration have been prioritized. The European Union has created new funds, for example a trust fund for Africa, where the European Union wants to be more visible and more active, so I think that these are signs that the international community is taking this migration issue seriously.”

What about the Czech Republic?

Georgia, photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency
“I think the same applies to the Czech Republic. We also provide contributions to the EU trust fund for Africa and other multilateral funds. Another example is our aid to Kosovo and Serbia, these are not countries of origin but these are transit countries that migrants go through and by helping Serbia and Kosovo we also help to manage the flow and transition of migrants in a more effective way.”

In order for this aid to be effective it needs to be well coordinated. Is this happening?

“Yes you are right, we are members of the European Union, there are 27 donners plus the European Commission which is also a big player in development aid so we want to be coordinated and synchronized. So for example, the Czech Republic has only selected six partner countries, which means that other EU states can provide assistance to other countries, but we also coordinate within the countries on sectoral level. In Zambia the Czech Republic only provides assistance in two sectors; health and agriculture, which allows other donners like the Netherlands or Sweden to provide assistance in for example energy or transport. So this kind of coordination between EU donners is very effective, we call it division of labor.”

When you have selected six countries, does that mean that you will be giving them long term aid?

“Yes, the idea is that we will provide assistance to these countries for six years at least and perhaps longer because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now preparing a new strategy for Czech Development Aid until 2030, so it’s a long-term commitment.”

How do you choose the form of aid for individual countries? Depending on where our strengths lie, what kind of experts we have, what kind of companies might be involved?

Mongolia, photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency
“Yes it’s always a combination of demand and supply. We know what the Czech Republic can offer, we know that our special expertise is for example in providing geological surveys in partner countries, we know what Czech companies can offer, what Czech public institutions can offer and we try to link this with the demand from partner countries. It’s always important to match our supply with demand from partner countries, because development aid needs to be demand-driven.”

How important is cooperation with the private sector in this?

“It’s very important because development challenges are very huge and the investment which is required for achieving sustainable development goals is around $3 trillion, which is a huge amount of money and development cooperation which is provided by public institutions is not enough to breach this gap. So the idea is to involve the private sector in development and to use development cooperation as leverage for mobilizing private resources. For example the Czech Development Agency has recently launched a new scheme, we call it ‘Business Partnership Programme’ where Czech companies can apply for some assistance, but we also expect them to provide their own resources. So the formula is 50/50 which means that half of the project is financed by the Czech Development Agency and the other half is financed by the companies themselves. So this is one example of how we can mobilize private resources for development.”

To what extent is development aid good for business? Does it open doors and opportunities?

“This year we received more than 90 applications for this Business Partnership scheme from Czech companies so I can say that they are interested. Of course, we don’t ask them for charity. We understand that they need to create jobs and make a profit. We just try to find some synergies between their business plans and our mission which is poverty reduction and sustainable development.”

How has the work of the Czech Development Agency changed over the years? In terms of whether you are sending goods, experts, services...

“We don’t ask companies for charity. We just try to find some synergies between their business plans and our mission.”

“One change is that we have been able to scale-up our budget and our assistance. Now we provide more assistance than we used to provide a couple of years ago. Another important qualitative change is that we now try to manage our projects in the field. We used to manage these projects from Prague, but now we have concluded an agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Czech Development Agency can send its staff to Czech embassies, because if our people are posted in embassies they are in the country and they can react in a more flexible way to the needs of partner countries.”

And you have guarantees that the money or aid is used effectively…

“Exactly, the people who are posted there can monitor the projects on a daily basis.”

What are some of the projects that the agency is working on now? You’re recently back from Georgia…

Georgia, photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency
“In Georgia there are many projects which can be clustered into three categories. One of them is rural development, because Georgia is relatively well-off country but there are disparities and in particular the remote mountain areas are underdeveloped. The Czech Republic has provided assistance to the region of Tusheti, a mountain region in Georgia. For a couple of years we have been helping them to develop a protected landscape so they can now also benefit from more tourism, this is one concrete example. Another one is in the health sector; the Czech Republic focuses on oncological diseases. Prevention, early diagnosis and cure of oncological diseases with a special focus on women, breast cancer and these kinds of diseases. Again, of course we provide some equipment, some modern technology for diagnostics and treatment of oncological diseases but we also try to train the doctors, nurses and medical staff so that they are also better equipped not only with the materials but also with skills, to help women in this struggle."

I see the aid is very diverse; I recall there were some projects in aid of local cheese production …

“Yes, that was in the region of Livno in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the local cheese is a traditional product, but the problem is that after Croatia, which was a huge market for Bosnia and Herzegovina, became a member of the European Union these agricultural products from Bosnia could not be exported to the European Union because there are higher standards for food safety in the EU. So Czech experts provided assistance to Bosnia and Herzegovina in terms of meeting these food sanitary standards. We built a couple of laboratories in Bosnia and Herzegovina where Bosnian experts themselves can now check the products and because the laboratories are certified by the European Commission this has allowed them to export products like cheese, milk, meat and honey to the European Union.”

So a big part of this effort is helping them to help themselves, helping them to acquire skills and startup businesses.

“You are right, for development to be sustainable in the long term we need to make sure that we don’t only build something but that the beneficiaries are then able to take care of these things themselves.”

I understand that the Czech government wants to increase the development aid that the country is providing, in fact triple it by 2020. If you were to explain to the public why is it important for this to be done -what reasons would you give?

“We assist local farmers to produce traditional products like nuts or some other products because otherwise they would prefer to grow opium and this could fuel terrorism and organized crime."

“First of all, there are the moral reasons because I think it’s good to help poor people, but there are also pragmatic reasons and we always try to explain that development aid is an integral part of our foreign policy. It can also be used to help prevent some security threats. For example; the outbreak of Ebola in Africa a couple of years ago was an example of how, if we improve the health system there, we could help them to maybe stop an outbreak of this kind of disease in the early stages. This kind of security argument can also be used for prevention of terrorism and organized crime. That’s why the Czech Republic is also assisting in Afghanistan. For example, we assist local farmers to produce traditional products like nuts or some other products because otherwise they would prefer to grow opium and this could fuel terrorism and organized crime. So this is one important argument, the other is a commercial argument because if we develop these countries we also create a market for our goods which is also important for Czech companies. So the combination of moral and pragmatic reasons is what we try to explain to the Czech public.”