Development aid climbs political agenda but Czech spending is still low

Photo: Štěpánka Budková

Addressing problems in underdeveloped countries so that people stay where they are is now one of the key concepts for dealing with the immigration crisis. But how well is the Czech Republic performing as regards development aid and how easily can new programmes and projects be set up to get help to where it’s needed most.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
Development aid is often a Cinderella issue for politicians and national budgets. But now is getting a much bigger profile and is being bandied about as part of the solution to the immigration problem. Development aid, unlike emergency humanitarian aid, seeks to make long term differences to the communities where funding and projects are targeted. And there are talks in Prague of expanding it to more countries at the source of the current immigrant crisis.

Last week the leader of the opposition Civic Democrats seized upon the issue to attack the current government for its failure to live up to past promises to boost development aid. Civic Democrat party leader Petr Fiala: “It is a big problem because [Bohuslav] Sobotka’s government does not respect what they said because Czech development support is not enough, was not increased, and it is very difficult in a time when it is necessary to support the people in crisis regions.”

By international standards, Czech spending on development aid is very low. It stands at 0.11 percent of Gross National Income (GNI). That’s about the same proportion as being spend by Greece. Among EU countries, among the few to have a worse record in 2014 are Slovakia and Poland. The UN target is 0.7 percent of GNI, a target achieved last year by Britain, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Sweden. There were promises to increase Czech aid in the recent past, but they are still promises. An argument sometimes used in Prague is that the Czech Republic can get more done for less than richer countries in terms of development aid.

'Our development cooperation already contributes to the prevention of migration.'

Michal Kaplan is director of the Czech Development Agency, the main Czech body responsible for drawing up development aid projects and implanting them. I asked him to outline what the country is doing and where.

“Development cooperation of the Czech Republic totals around US $ 200 million a year. But it consists also of our contributions to the European Union and the UN budget, our bilateral ODA (Overseas Development Aid) which is administered by the Czech Development Agency is around $ US 20 million a year.

“Currently, we have a dozen target countries. These are countries in the Western Balkans like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo. We have a couple of countries in Eastern Europe, Moldova and Georgia, and also recently Ukraine. Then in the Middle East there is Palestine. And there is also Afghanistan. In sub-Saharan Africa we provide aid to Ethiopia and Zambia. And, lastly, when it comes to Asia we provide aid to Mongolia and Cambodia.”

And can you describe the sort of projects that you are trying to promote in these countries?

“We have three kinds of interventions. The first cluster is around human dignity which means that we support health, education, and social inclusion of disabled people and marginalized groups. The second group of activities are our support of the green economy, which is agriculture, a sustainable energy and water. And the last aspect of our intervention is a kind of special support to institutions in partner countries. We can share our transition experience from our own political and economic transition which we went through and from our accession to the EU. These are the three broad categories of our intervention. “

Michal Kaplan,  photo: archive of Czech Development Agency
The idea is that Czech aid will increase in future year if I am correct?

“Currently we stand at 0.11 percent of GNI, which is the international figure for comparison. There was a commitment to increase our ODA to 0.33 percent, but because of the financial crisis and other constraints we have not been able to scale up our ODA. So I hope that now, when the Czech economy is growing and tax collection is improving, there will be scope for scaling up our budget.”

But no decision has been taken yet?

“No, no, no, the state budget is planned for three years. So in the current forecast the ODA budget stays at the same level as in the previous years. The budget is stable. “

One country I don’t think you mentioned, perhaps it is not on the list any more, is Yemen. ..

“We used to provide development aid to Yemen but we decided to phase Yemen out. It was a decision taken before the current turmoil and war. The decision was also taken because we wanted to limit the number of partner countries.”

And Afghanistan?

“Afghanistan is a long term priority not just for the Czech Republic but for the whole international community. We are providing some aid through trust funds and some international organisations and some Czech NGOs are active in Afghanistan so I suppose that we continue with our support in the next years. “

And in such countries, Yemen in the past maybe Afghanistan now, how difficult is it to provide aid where there is no stable situation and where the government and other institutions are very weak?

'We should maybe include some new partner countries which are now victims of this unfortunate situation with refugees and migrants.'

“It is very difficult because normally we would like to provide development cooperation aid to countries which are stable, which have democratic institutions and good governance. In these other countries, it is difficult to find the channels through which we could provide our aid effectively because we also need to be accountable to our taxpayers. That’s why we use these NGOs, which is a kind of guarantee that the funds which are allocated to these countries will not disappear in some other channels.”

If, hypothetically, you were to get a lot more money, how difficult would it be to use that money on various projects?

“If our budget increased, we could scale up fairly quickly. Obviously, it takes a couple of months to prepare new projects and programmes. We need to consult with the government in the partner country. But because we are very flexible, we can prepare new projects within half a year.”

Coming to the countries you now cover, I think you have expressed in the past the desire that that number would be restricted further? When you look at the countries, Serbia, people may say ‘Why are you helping Serbia which wants to join the EU within a few years’. What sort of countries do you think you should be concentrating on?

“The current strategy for Czech development assistance will last until 2017. So now the Ministry for Foreign Affairs has already started preparation and consultations for the new type of strategy for the next programming period beyond 2017. So there are now discussions that we should, first, limit the number of partner countries and that, second, we should maybe include some new partner countries which are now victims of this unfortunate situation with refugees and migrants. So this discussion is ongoing and in the end it will be a political decision by the government.”

So these countries with refugee problems, Jordan, Turkey, other countries in that region, can you be more specific?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“I can’t name these countries because it has not been decided yet. But I would like to stress that already the current list of countries that we help is very important when it comes to this migration issue. Let’s take for example Ethiopia, which is a huge country of 90 million inhabitants in the Horn of Africa and we are helping them to stabilize their economy. We are helping them to have access to fresh water. So this is also something that needs to be appreciated that already our development cooperation already contributes to the prevention of migration.”

What is the scope of your cooperation with NGOs and private companies and even other foreign development agencies? Is it all about cooperation or is there some rivalry there as well?

“When it comes to implementing partners, these are mainly NGOs, universities. We also cooperation with the private sector and with regions and municipalities. So I think three is cooperation between these partners. When it comes to other donors, the Czech Republic is obviously a small donor. We provide only 0.11 percent of our GNI, so it is in our interest to join forces with other donors to make our interventions bigger and the impact of our interventions bigger. So, I would not say that there is competition. We are also cooperating within the framework of the European Union, so there is scope for cooperation.