Czech Development Agency head: our goal is to plug Czech aid into European aid projects 

Czech Aid in Zambia, 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 are the countries for development cooperation selected and how has the coronavirus crisis impacted its work? Those are just some of the questions I discussed with the head of the agency Jan Slíva.

Czech Aid in Zambia,  photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency

“Czech Aid is active in six so-called priority countries, and those are Bosnia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Moldova, and Zambia. These are the priority countries of the Czech Republic’s Development Cooperation Strategy, a list which was put together by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is valid through 2023. The countries have been selected on a number of criteria. First, we wanted to cover both the low- and middle-income brackets. So, we have three so-called least-developed countries: Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Zambia. And three middle-income countries: Bosnia, Georgia, and Moldova. The other criteria are the presence of a Czech embassy in the country so that our project can be easily monitored, the need for donor intervention, and so on.”

And with what kind of projects are you helping them?

Czech Aid in Ethiopia,  photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency

“Well, we are a grant-based agency. The bigger agencies, such as France’s AFD, for example, also use other tools, such as loans and microfinance. But at Czech Aid, our tools are fairly simple and straightforward. We provide grants to project promoters to implement our project ideas – that is the basic premise. Now, we focus on different sectors in each of our countries of operation based on the countries’ priorities. So, for example in Ethiopia, we focus on access to clean water, on the so-called ‘WASH’ cycle, which stands for water, sanitation, and hygiene. Furthermore, we focus on the sustainable use of natural resources, and on education. In Moldova, the focus is on clean water, sanitation, and social services. In Georgia and Cambodia, we are strong in the health and social sectors.

So, you basically consult them on their needs and then respond to that?

“Yes, that’s it.”

Illustrative photo: PapaOsmosis,  Pixabay / CC0

The coronavirus has changed the way we all work. How has it impacted the work of the Czech Development Agency?

“Yes, it has impacted the way we work bigtime. You know that our work depends on the ability to travel. The project promoters, that is the NGOs and companies we hire to implement our projects, do so in the country of operation. And when they cannot travel, they cannot properly implement those projects. Or so we thought. Because the pandemic has now unleashed a huge wave of creativity. For example, we use the local workforce a lot more, and we do a lot of things online. So, we are now shifting the travel paradigm. And, who knows, maybe we will continue to work like that in the future. Because it would certainly be more climate-friendly.”

Were there any special coronavirus projects this year?

Ethiopia,  photo: UNICEF Ethiopia,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Yes, there have been coronavirus related projects. In Zambia or Ethiopia, for example, there were large-scale projects to support mainly the healthcare services, access to clean water, and basically to help educate people on how to face and fight Covid-19. In the coming year, we will have more of those. We are in fact bound by the government to invest a percentage of our budget into Covid- related projects.”

Do you give long-term aid, or do you prefer to focus on short-term projects?

Czech Aid in Moldova,  photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency

“We are in it for the long run. The basic difference between development cooperation and humanitarian aid is that the latter is aimed at alleviating some immediate hardship, stemming from say a hurricane or an earthquake, whereas development cooperation, which is what we do, is aimed to address long-term issues. We seek to enhance the partner countries’ development priorities explicitly. So, that is a long-term process, and it requires a strategy and cooperation among donors. We are currently in the process of seeking more like-minded agencies to work on projects together to achieve a much larger leverage effect.”

When you say long-term projects, how long term is that? You said that the priority countries were set by the Foreign Ministry. How long do you stay in one country before you move on, and how often are the priority countries revised?

Czech Aid in Cambodia,  photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency

“Well, the priority countries change from time to time. We work in five-year cycles, so that is the time frame.  Basically, every five years these countries are revised. It is a good question to ask for how long we stay in these countries because the projects that we do have a long-term effect. So, even if we leave the country, the dozens of projects that we have done there continue to work for the public benefit for many years to come.”

So, basically, you help these countries or their people to be able to help themselves in the future. You jumpstart projects there...

“That is exactly it. But, I would not call what we provide aid. I would call our activities development cooperation. We cooperate with the countries on their development priorities and projects. And, like you said, we help them to help themselves in the long run.”

Czech Aid in Moldova,  photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency

How important is cooperation with the Czech private sector in providing development aid?

“The participation of the private sector is, obviously, crucial. The public sector can never meet all the challenges on its own, and this is a universally accepted fact. Czech Aid has a program designed to engage with the private sector: it is called B2B (business to business). And it supports the expansion of Czech businesses to developing countries. The program is quite successful, although we would like more companies to apply for our support. But it is something to build on. Obviously, development cooperation is a major opportunity for Czech businesses. It opens many doors and can be a stepping-stone for something much larger. Say you start with half a million Czech crowns from Czech Aid, you gain a good reputation and some contacts. And, the next thing you know, you might be bidding for a very large international contract. So, we do work with the private sector. It is a priority, and we rejoice every time a company scores abroad with our support.”

How great is the interest among Czechs in starting a business far from home? Because it can’t be easy.

B2B project in Myanmar,  photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency

“Well, it is a matter of perspective. We do get dozens of bids every year. B2B has been around for a few years, and we get between 40 and 50 applications every year. And that’s not nothing. To have 50 companies in a small country like the Czech Republic that want to start a business abroad is not bad. Now, we would like to expand, but I think that this is already a very good phase.”

What kind of areas are we talking about? What have been some of the most successful projects in this B2B scheme in the past few years?

“When we focus specifically on B2B, it is hard to name just one or two projects because every project that we do contributes to development in the recipient countries in a big way. But there have been projects with a lot of visibility, so let me name at least one. From the B2B side in Cambodia, a Czech company is helping local farmers produce some world-class pepper with our support. This project is much appreciated in Cambodia. And, obviously, when you commercialize such an enterprise, it is a win-win for everybody.”

Czech Aid in Zambia,  photo: Archive of the Czech Development Agency

How has the work of the Czech Development Agency changed over the years? In terms of whether you are sending goods, experts, or services - is there a significant change in the way that you help?

“I would say the main change is that we are no longer a start-up. The Agency has been around for twelve years. We have developed and become an established and recognized international donor. The big thing for the years to come will be to plug Czech Aid into European projects. We would like to join Team Europe, a loose grouping of development agencies, development banks, and the European Commission, and play a major role in implementing European projects. So, this is something that we will focus on in the coming years, and we would like Czech Aid to be a proud and integral part of Team Europe.”