The wrong solution for the refugee crisis

Refugees escape by boat.jpg
Copyright: Andrew McConnell / Panos

Speed read

  • European Commission plans to create trust fund for North Africa
  • This might be too much like conventional aid to ease migration
  • The commission would achieve more by sharing expertise and innovation

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Knowledge exchange and innovation funding would do more to build stability in North Africa than EU aid ever can.

It was the poignant photo of a drowned Syrian boy on a Turkish beach that finally launched a widespread public debate on Europe’s refugee crisis.

Faced with the fallout of the Syrian war, European politicians, who previously did little but bemoan the plight of ‘migrants’, suddenly made sweeping statements underlining the “welcoming culture” of Europe and their ability to “process” migrants. Even reluctant converts, such as UK Prime Minister David Cameron, were forced by public opinion to commit to hosting at least some refugees.

The European Commission, the European Union’s administrative body, went a step further last week. It proposed a series of measures including a €1.8 billion (US$2 billion) funding pot — the Trust Fund for Africa — to improve economic and social conditions in Northern Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. The aim is to tackle the root cause of the refugee problem in Northern Africa, where some of the migration originates.

Unfortunately there is, as yet, very little information on what social groups and economic sectors it will address, and how it will work. My fear is that it will be too much like conventional aid to make a difference.

The first thing to remember is that this is a trust fund. This means that the money will be stowed away in different investments with the profits paid out each year to be actually used. So, only a fraction of the €1.8 billion will actually ever reach crisis areas. The fund is meant to address an “emergency”, but years could go by until it pays out its first instalment, so the money won’t be there in time for the current crisis.

“Spending aid money alone will not reduce the number of people risking their lives for a better life in Europe. But what else is needed?”

Inga Vesper, SciDev.Net

Then there is the rhetoric, starting with the title. A Trust Fund for Africa ignores the fact that the continent’s 54 countries represent a wide variety of societies and economies, each with its own challenges and many with reasonable standards of stable economic growth. The Sahel, for example, comprises ten countries with different government systems, religions and societies that range from politically stable to those governed by warlords and living in fear of terrorist groups.

The fund also infantilises North Africa’s people — a trust fund is usually set up for children.

The trouble with food aid

Apart from war, what leads many to emigrate from North Africa is food insecurity caused by drought, unsustainable farming practices and overpopulation. So what’s the European Union fund going to do about this?

Food aid may seem like a good idea, but in practice it is difficult. Administration in the area is weak, food would have to be shipped from far away and even if supplies get to local airports and cities, who is going to ensure they reach people in remote regions often in greatest need? And once the food runs out, the same problems remain.

A different strategy might be to provide money for local people to invest in their businesses to expand the economy, so people can afford imported food.

International donors are increasingly realising that providing loans and seed funding to poor economies can work better than aid, because it creates greater commitment to use the money wisely, while doing more for lasting economic development. [1] But more than investment is needed to make people stay in places like the Sahel, where weak government and armed groups threaten their earnings.Yet another use for the fund would be to provide technical assistance, training and education to poor countries. Educating people means creating a more outspoken and demanding society, which could lead to better governance and, again, to economic growth through innovation. But, again, in a region as unstable as the Sahel it’s unlikely to work. Science and innovation only thrive if universities are strengthened and free thinking is encouraged, but the long-term investment needed to do this is hard to come by. And such a strategy might backfire: educated people are also the first to leave as a country declines, because they have the funds and opportunities to start a life elsewhere. [2]

More than money

If this is the case, spending aid money alone will not reduce the number of people risking their lives for a better life in Europe. But what else is needed?

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, hinted at the answer when he proposed the trust fund in his State of the European Union speech on 9 September. He passionately described why Europe is the destination of choice for the refugees landing daily on its shores. He talked about European values of free speech, tolerance, acceptance and solidarity — not forgetting economic prosperity. “It is Europe today that represents a beacon of hope, a haven of stability in the eyes of women and men in the Middle East and in Africa,” he said.

So Europe is in an ideal position to lead by example. Along with money from the fund, regions such as the Sahel need to benefit from a revised foreign policy of European countries — not one that focuses on oil deals, drone strikes and neglect, but one that values partnership and discussion. [3]
Increasing scientific collaboration and knowledge exchange could be the starting point for long-lasting joint efforts to fix North African governments’ deflated economies and end warmongering.

There is consensus that this has had some success in Botswana, where little cash flow but lots of technical and knowledge exchange created a prosperous, innovative state after the country’s independence in 1964. The same strategy also led to significant progress in Myanmar, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslav states. Although trouble still haunts these countries, they are, by and large, better off than they would have been without European Union-funded universities, peace talks and technical training programmes. 

Europe has a lot to share: experience, innovation, guidelines on standards to facilitate trade, and, not least, money to fund the sharing of this knowledge.

A combination of knowledge exchange and funding for innovation would do more to build havens of stability in crisis regions than the drip-drip of aid ever can.

Inga Vesper is news and features editor at SciDev.Net.


[1] Michael Nicholson and Sarah Lane The next step in African development: Aid, investment, or another round of debt? (US Agency for International Development, November 2012)
[2] Aaditya Mattoo and others Brain waste? Educated immigrants in the US labor market (Journal of Development Economics, October 2008)
[3] Oladiran Bello Quick fix or quicksand? Implementing the EU Sahel Strategy (FRIDE, November 2012)