Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Let us use Afghanistan as a case study. This Committee has seen, on many occasions in the past, where there has been a crisis and a Development Commissioner has popped up and pledged a large amount of money for that crisis, and then you go back a year later, or more than a year, as in the case of Hurricane Mitch, but not just Hurricane Mitch, which is legendary, but there are other examples, and found not a penny has arrived there. Now, in Afghanistan, there is very shortly, hopefully, going to need to be a large-scale, integrated programme in that country of reconstruction, in which the European Union must play its full part; what encouragement can you give to us that the performance will be better this time?
  (Mr Ireton) I would not want to go down the Kosovo agency route here, where they showed that, in that context, they could perform better. It seems to me, in the Afghanistan route, the key thing is, assuming that we do get access, there is an interim administration of some description and that the UN agencies and the UN can re-establish an effective presence. The key thing for the Community, as ourselves, is to ensure that the pledges that we have all made, and may need to make further, are disbursed quickly to those agencies on the ground and able to deliver immediate humanitarian relief, and more, as we get in there, by more I mean starting some of the immediate rehabilitation work, that is to do with water supply, or getting children, and girls in particular, back into school, having supplementary feeding programmes, whatever it is, and seeds and tools, and all the usual things, in terms of encouraging people to return from the refugee camps or internally displaced encampments within Afghanistan. And it seems to me that the Community there should play the role that we are playing, in providing those agencies with the assistance that they need to do that. The second issue, which we will no doubt be discussing at the international meeting in Brussels, in preparation for what is envisaged as a reconstruction conference in Tokyo, at some time in the new year, is what financing modalities we use which get reconstruction off to a good start, and we are currently thinking about that but we want the Commission to be involved in those discussions. In the past, trust funds have been created; experience of those trust funds in East Timor were not as good as we had hoped, we were a strong supporter of the East Timor trust fund, in fact, it proved slow in disbursement. So we want to be careful about that. But what we want to do is to try to encourage the Commission to, I suppose, behave like we would, in finding flexible means of providing support, not getting bogged down; what we do not want in Afghanistan is all the donors being in there, separately, doing their own thing, what we want is something that resembles the comprehensive development framework, PRSP approach.

  21. This is an interesting example. The World Bank in Afghanistan is arguing for a single reconstruction agency, that is the line it put in a paper; it may have changed that. And it would seem to me that the answer, as far as the EC is concerned, is simply to say to the World Bank, or the reconstruction agency, `here is your X millions; you, knowing the situation on the ground, get on and distribute it.' Is the European Union capable of doing that?
  (Mr Ireton) It is capable of doing that. The reason I hesitated over whether it is an agency or trust fund is, simply, two things. Firstly, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking in a mind-set that the donors are going to rehabilitate Afghanistan; there needs to be some form of interim administration, we need to build the capacity of that administration so that it is capable of interacting with the donor community to reconstruct Afghanistan. So when people talk about the reconstruction agency, if that means a donor agency then I think we need to rethink things; if it means an Afghanistan agency, which we are all supporting, then that would be another matter. This needs quite a lot of careful thought. In response to your specific point, I do not see why the Commission is not capable of providing funds into some common pool that would lead to an effective reconstruction programme, as opposed to having lots of people on the ground trying to do their own thing.

  22. I am trying to remember the Asian lead time, was it not something like nine years for a project to be conceived and then to be implemented in Asia; was not that the record?
  (Mr Smith) I have not heard that figure; it is not outlandish.

  23. So you are hopeful but without real grounds for optimism?
  (Mr Ireton) I think there will be a grown-up debate about how we all, most effectively, channel funds into the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

  24. But, as yet, and perhaps it is unreasonable, we cannot point to any progress being made in improving the level of disbursements, reducing old and dormant commitments and making payments to NGOs on time; NGOs have not been saying to you `things are better now'?
  (Mr Smith) On some of those, I think there is some progress. On reducing the level of old and of dormant commitments, they have made considerable efforts to do that, and over the past couple of years have written off around

400 million to

500 million of commitments in each of those years, which was considerably more than they had done or tried to do before. But I think, on the issue of Afghanistan, one point worth adding is that they have now signed, the Community, an agreement with the World Bank on EC contributions to trust funds, which makes that much easier than it has been in the past, and I think, on Afghanistan, their immediate instinct, when thinking about how best to contribute, was to use a trust fund vehicle. Now we may or may not end up with a trust fund, but their instinct is to provide cash for others to administer, and that is partly because, aside from the humanitarian work, they have not had a programme in Afghanistan and they recognise that they do not have huge resources to administer their own stand-alone programmes there.

  25. And will ECHO be efficient in Afghanistan?
  (Mr Ireton) ECHO are providing assistance to UN agencies and other agencies and NGOs.

Mr Khabra

  26. With the changes which have been made in the management structure of EuropeAid and ECHO, earlier in the year the EuropeAid Cooperation Office was established as a single department to handle the EC's external aid. Would you consider it appropriate that, as has been suggested in memos received from ActionAid and the British Overseas NGOs for Development, EuropeAid or DG Development be abolished in a further round of reforms, and what would be the implications of the loss of DG Development?
  (Mr Smith) I think that we saw great merit, the Government, at the time of the establishment of this Commission, when the Prodi Commission started, in having a single Commissioner responsible for administering programmes in all developing countries. The Commission decided not to go down that route, they ended up with a geographical responsibility split, and establishing a separate organisation, EuropeAid, to handle the implementation. In our view, at this stage, at least in theory, it would still remain better to have a single Commissioner handling programmes in all developing countries, but it is not in our power to change that at the moment, and we think that the present set-up is better than the previous one and would like it to work. If it turns out that it works brilliantly and there is no need for further reform then we would certainly want to take that into account when it is next up for debate. There will be a review of EuropeAid over the next 18 months, or so, I think, starting towards the end of next year they will begin reviewing how EuropeAid is going, and at that stage we will have more knowledge, it will have been operational for a bit longer, and we will be able to take a view on the structure again. But, at this stage, I think we have stepped back from that question, for the time being, because we addressed it when the Commission was establishing its new structure, they chose a different model, it is better than it was, and we would like it to succeed, so we will be supporting that, but we will review it when there is an evaluation taking place of the structure.

  27. What was the reason that duplication was taking place and there was a need to have one established authority?
  (Mr Smith) Do you mean why was the present structure chosen?

  28. Yes?
  (Mr Smith) I am not entirely sure, but I think there was a feeling that the size of the Community's programmes were such that it would serve a certain interest to have them split up, that you could have more than one Commissioner having substantial portfolios, even if they were split, and that they would be able to find effective ways of overcoming the drawbacks in that, by establishing this new body.

  29. And that means that there is a need for further reform?
  (Mr Ireton) We will have to wait and see, as to how effective the new system proves to be. And, I think, having established EuropeAid with a relatively clear remit, in terms of project cycle management, then we have some grounds for some optimism, particularly if they continue to deconcentrate, as they propose, and establish some effective country offices, and delegate authority to those offices, which is critical.

  30. Following on to the second question. How does the European Community's Humanitarian Office (ECHO) relate to EuropeAid; and how effective has ECHO been in the current humanitarian crisis affecting Afghanistan, in particular, and the surrounding region? And, furthermore, will the EC's contribution to the current humanitarian crisis be at the expense of spending in other developing countries, because it can have an affect, or are there extra funds available to deal with the crisis?
  (Mr Smith) ECHO is not administered by EuropeAid, EuropeAid's role is to implement the mainstream development programmes of DG Development and DG RELEX, but ECHO maintains its previous autonomous administrative arrangements and administers the programmes itself; so it is not part of the EuropeAid set-up. In Afghanistan, our assessment is that ECHO has been effective at providing assistance promptly to agencies, in response to the various appeals that have been made; as you know, it is not active itself on the ground, it works through agencies and funds both UN agencies and NGOs, and it has done that effectively, as far as we can tell at the moment. I have forgotten the third question.


  31. Will the money spent in Afghanistan be at the expense of other programmes?
  (Mr Smith) On the humanitarian side, the answer is no, the humanitarian budget had adequate funds during this financial year to cover needs, with the exception of a small supplement that was made from the emergency aid reserve, a few weeks ago, and we anticipate that next year that will be the case as well. The area of difficulty is in the longer-term reconstruction, which is not covered by the humanitarian aid budget line, where, since Asia is severely underfunded in the Community, we have been pushing for additional funds to be made available.
  (Mr Ireton) But, that is, importantly within the overall external envelope.

  Mr Carmichael: Can I move us on to deconcentration to delegations. I hesitate, as a lover, and hopefully a practitioner, of plain English, to use the term.

  Mr Robathan: English?

Mr Carmichael

  32. English; albeit accented. It is generally, I think, probably a good thing, so I am prepared to live with the tortuous term. First of all, on the question of timetabling, as I understand it, the aim is to have deconcentrated to, is it, 86 delegations by the end of 2003, and the first 22 of them should have been deconcentrated by the end of this year; is that a timetable which is still on schedule? And then, perhaps, if you could answer that first of all, we can look at the issues of the actual staffing of the delegations?
  (Mr Smith) On the timetable, we can only talk about the first 22 at the moment, and they are behind schedule, but it looks as though, at this stage, most will have been completed by the end of January, so a month late, which is not too bad. So they will be able to say that, at that date, the delegations will be able to operate with their new responsibilities and carry out the functions which deconcentration involves, which are considerable, more functions are going to be carried out overseas by Commission delegations than by DFID officers, for example. DFID's contracting is done by our office in East Kilbride, the Commission will have to do their contracting from their overseas delegations. And because of that, not surprisingly, they have been rather focused on those financial issues, they want to get in place, first of all, the people who will manage the contracts, get the information systems in place to allow that contracting function to be carried out effectively from overseas back to Brussels. Will they be able to do what we would like them to do, in terms of policy dialogue, more effectively, that remains to be seen. We do not have a complete picture at the moment of exactly what type of staff has been recruited so far, and their priorities, whether their work will be 50 per cent doing contracting and 50 per cent policy dialogue, or 90 per cent and 10 per cent.

  33. A number of the briefings we have received have all highlighted staffing as a major concern about these deconcentrated delegations. Just to pull one example out, we have heard evidence from delegations in Bangladesh, South Africa and Nicaragua, suggesting that gender policies are not widely implemented or seen as top priorities, I am reading from a BOND briefing here; the delegation staff do not feel they have access to training to improve their skills in mainstreaming gender. I think there is a concern that in the rush to deconcentrate there is going to be a risk that we do not have either sufficient numbers or sufficient quality of staff, and what is your view on that, as a concern?
  (Mr Smith) I do not have experience of those particular countries that you mentioned. On the whole, I think the concerns are likely to be justified; it is a major programme of management change which involves a major recruitment and training programme, and experience shows that these change programmes tend to slip and to be less effective than originally planned. And I suppose our approach is that until we have evidence that they have succeeded we will assume that they are not at the capacity which has been advertised. But, as I said, we do not have a complete picture of all the details; what we do know is that the Commission have taken steps to recruit a broader mix of quality of development skills than they have had in the past, both permanent Commission staff and contracted staff who will, as with all development agencies, play a major role; not everyone is a full-time staff member. They have started some training programmes. Gender, which has been mentioned, has been perennially very weak in its treatment by the Commission, and they have relied on a few Member States, including the UK, to provide seconded expertise without really building their own capacity to deal with gender issues. So we would expect to be able to have an assessment during the first quarter of next year. We are asking all of DFID's offices about not specifically deconcentration but the way in which they are working and the quality of their collaboration with Commission officers overseas, and when we get the results of that we might have a better picture.

  34. You mention an assessment in the first quarter of next year; do you see a role for NGOs in carrying out that assessment?
  (Mr Smith) I had not thought of it, but I do not see why they could not be involved. I was talking about a DFID assessment, and we could certainly discuss it with them.

  35. Just staying on the question of staffing, this is something that this Committee has dealt with in the past, it has been a cry of NGOs, of the Commission itself, that the level of staffing is not adequate for the work to be done. Now if that is to have a severe impact on deconcentration, which everyone seems to think is a good idea, can we look for a change of attitude from the DFID, and maybe the Secretary of State, on that?
  (Mr Ireton) I think the answer to that is yes, actually. We have to be a bit careful; deconcentration can add to costs, but it can also help reduce costs, and it is difficult to know where the balance lies. Having, if you like, a Brussels-based person living in Delhi is more expensive than living in Brussels; on the other hand, deconcentration does give much greater scope for employing nationals as well, which is very important in terms of the effectiveness of the programmes that they are trying to manage. But I think the answer is that we are sympathetic, we are conscious of our own running cost constraints, so we are not unsympathetic to the problems of how to manage a growing programme with scarce human resources, but we would need to be confident, as with our own organisation, that those are being deployed most effectively.

Hugh Bayley

  36. In her evidence to us, Glenys Kinnock gave us the example of a comparison between the EU's programme in Sudan, which is spending

64 million, and is managed by five EU staff in-country, the head of the delegation and an administrative attaché, an ECHO technical assistant, a food security technical assistant, and somebody described as a young expert; we wish we were all young experts. By contrast, the UK is managing a programme of a bit under

11 million, one-sixth of the size, with almost twice as many operational staff, nine operational staff out of 15 officials in-country. Is it any surprise that the EU takes ten years to deliver projects, that we do not get proper reporting from the field and proper accountability, if there are that few staff in the field; and what is the answer, to what extent is it posting people from Brussels to the field, and to what extent is it reporting locally? If you were managing the EU Sudan office, what would you do?
  (Mr Ireton) If I were unconstrained, abstracting a bit from the nature of the programme and the fact that there had been a civil war going on there for a very long time, abstracting from that, if one can, a bit, I would certainly have more staff in Khartoum and fewer back in Brussels. I have to say, I did not recognise the DFID figure. We do not have large amounts of DFID staff in Khartoum, hopefully; we run our Sudan operation, which is a humanitarian relief operation, essentially, from our London office, actually.

  37. So the figures may be wrong?
  (Mr Ireton) And I am afraid I only read that, interestingly, last night, and I did not have an opportunity to actually find out the answer. I will happily do so, for comparison purposes.[9]

Mr Robathan

  38. Can I pick you up on this, because we have been here with the Secretary of State before, as you know, and actually, surprisingly, I agree with her entirely on what she says, and I know that there was a plea from Chris Patten, I think about two years ago, that he desperately wanted more staff. Are you saying, Mr Ireton, that, essentially, there is resistance amongst civil servants working for the Commission in Brussels to move out of Brussels, and the comfortable life they are in, into the field; is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Ireton) I was not saying that.

  39. Was that what you were implying?
  (Mr Ireton) Let us just talk honestly about this.

9   Note by DFID: There is one, DFID-funded Second Secretary post in the Embassy in Khartoum. The current holder is not a member of DFID core staff. In DFID Headquarters in London there are five staff in the section covering Sudan. There are also several Departmental advisers, part of whose workload, to a varying degree, include Sudan. Back

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