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Webinar report - Public debate on the future of development with Bill Gates

L012198 EN A3PO EXPO Innovation in development

Video of the event

The Development Committee (DEVE) and the European Think Tanks Group (which brings together five think tanks from 5 countries, with 250 researchers) organizes a public debate on the future of development and innovation in Europe in the Alcide de Gasperi room of the European Parliament in Brussels. The speakers are Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the EC, Bill GATES, Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation co-chair, and Imme Scholz, Director of the German Development Institute.

Simon Maxwell, current Chair of the European Think Tanks Group, introduces and moderates the debate. MPs are present in the room and in the next few months they will be working on the proposal for a new framework for the EU development policy, which has been proposed by the European Commission. The attempt is to collectively deliver on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Maxwell explains that he was at a townhall meeting for an hour and a half before the event and they reached two conclusions: taking into account elections of the European Parliament, big decisions are underway and the first one we have to get together is to defend development, because there are many countervailing forces in Europe which would erode the commitment that is found in the Development Committee. Second of all, we also have to develop our thinking about development in favor of a very different world: fewer and fewer low-income countries, conflict-affected states and a successful handling of global challenges like climate change. Who gains, who loses from globalization? How do we deliver deep structural transformation? What do we do about migration and conflict? Maxwell explains that they reached the important conclusion that in Europe, the development issue can’t be dealt with at a technical level anymore, only with instruments measuring the balance between regions.

Federica Mogherini is given to floor. She chooses to start from numbers: last year the European Union and its Member States have invested more in development cooperation than the rest of the world combined. Over 50% of global official development assistance comes from Europe with 20 billion € every year in Africa alone. These are mostly grants, not loans, so they do not become a burden on future generations. The European Commission position is that it is the smartest investment that we can make for our own security, stability and human development.

At the same time, in facing challenges, the best way to protect and promote further the idea of development cooperation is to make it more effective. Partnership with the United Nations is the compass of all EU foreign policy. Therefore, in these months and years, new ways of doing development cooperation have been explored in the EU following the compass of the SDGs.

The EU has agreed on a European Consensus on Development, inspired by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, so that all European Union Member States and all European Union institutions coordinate their action on the ground. The potential impact of the EU’s action is unparalleled, if all Europeans focus together on the same set of targets in a coordinated manner - also by mobilising other tools such as trade preferences or security cooperation. Putting together in a coordinated manner all the instruments available as European institutions and Member States is the real game changer when it comes to development.

Mogherini continues by explaining that if the EU is changing the way things are done inside the European Union, this is also happening for the way to work with partners. First, the cooperation with the United Nations is being brought to a different level. Second, partnerships with other regional organisations are underway more than ever before. Third, priorities are being agreed upon together with the EU’s local partners, by trying to move away from the traditional donor-recipient approach and develop real partnerships by which listening before acting is key. Finally, there’s a new crucial engagement with the private sector. Mogherini quickly goes through these changes.

First, on the work and partnership with United Nations. The European Commission is making sure that when a new programme is launched, it never duplicates what is already being done by UN agencies, but rather reinforces their action.

Second, on the regional organisations. One of the most innovative initiatives the EU has taken, together with the UN, for instance, is the trilateral cooperation European Union-United Nations-African Union. The Commission have realised that we share the same interests, and the most rational thing to do is to join forces. It is a partnership that started around the need to manage migration jointly, in a human and respectful manner, and it is now moving towards other sectors such as development, humanitarian aid but also security. The African partners are appreciating the work which is being done on development and humanitarian aid as well as on peace and security, but what they are really asking for is investments and jobs. Europeans have finally realised that indeed what we need to do is not charity, but common projects and work. The migration crisis has persuaded everybody in Europe that our partnership with Africa is the best and most needed investment for all of Europe. Investing in Africa is a way to strengthen Africa’s societies: giving opportunities, starting from young people and women, by investing in human growth, rule of law, good governance and human rights. Investing in Africa is first and foremost helping the local economies diversify, respecting their natural environment and natural resources, trying to raise standards – be them environmental, labour, human rights standards - and investing so that peace can stand the test of time by having the societies fully supporting it. In brief, the EU’s investment in Africa is fully driven by all of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In times of budgetary restraints due to Brexit, the European Commission have proposed a budget that is 30% higher than the previous one on external action, especially for Africa. This proposal is now coming to the Parliament and the Council, but this is for sure the area where only acting as European Union has a real difference on the ground, because the size of it – €20 billion every year only for Africa – couldn’t be achieved by any Member State alone.

Mogherini’s final point is on how the EU is changing the work with the private sector. The Commission understands that public resources will never be sufficient to fully implement the Sustainable Development Goals. Therefore, new ways to create incentives for private investors to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals are being explored. Mogherini makes two examples: first is the External Investment Plan for Africa, but also for the EU’s neighbourhood. The idea is to attract private investments to the most fragile regions, which are also the most difficult for the private sector to invest in: security reasons, bureaucracies, difficulties of going through the various channels of the administration locally. The EU can also accompany this work locally to ease and to facilitate the presence of the private sector where it is most needed – but not just private investments that would contribute to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. If the risk to invest in a certain area is too high, the EU puts its resources to provide a guarantee for the investment. Even though the plan is only in its early days, the EU is on track to mobilise €44 billion in investment by 2020. Second, a new kind of partnership is also being explored with tech companies, through an initiative called Global Tech Panel, in which Microsoft is closely involved. One of the first projects aims at providing digital skills to all Tunisian youth. Clearly this is something that would be too ambitious for a single government to do; it is also something that private companies would not achieve without the support from the public sector. Tech leaders from the public and private sector and the youth of Tunisia are being put together to achieve this goal in the coming years.

Bill Gates is given the floor and starts by giving some background about how the Gates Foundation sees developing countries. In 1958, year of the first meeting of the European Parliament, the largest famine the world has ever seen took place in China: tens of millions of people died and the average life expectancy in the world was brought down. Today, China is far better off: the life expectancy is 77 years, even slightly above the global average, and only 1% of their people live in extreme poverty. China isn’t the only country that’s witnessed this rapid progress over the last six decades. In 1958, the majority of the world lived in extreme poverty, in 1990 it was 36% and today it’s less than 10%. Gates’ favourite statistics shows how much deaths of children are being prevented: in 1990, there were 11 million children dying, and now that number’s down to 5 million. The reasons for that happening are generosity and vaccines. There is a connection between progress in the world and generosity in development. Europe is an indispensable partner: although the EU amounts for 22% of the global economy, it does for 57% in global aid. Even if we remove country level donations, and just look at European institutions alone, the EU would be the world’s 4th largest donor, with over 16.5 billion euros invested in “development assistance”. The US is less generous in terms of percentage of money spent in development assistance compared to its economy. According to Gates, it is important for the EU to keep that level high in order to persuade the US Congress not to give in to the unfavorable climate towards foreign aid.

The money spent in health has improved dramatically. The global alliance for vaccines was able to make sure that the ones that were been given to children in middle income in rich countries got given to the ones in developing countries, who were in risk of dying from diarrhea and pneumonia. Another progress that also involved European aid is polio eradication: it started out back in 1988 with 350.000 cases and now it’s down below 50 cases, only in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We’re very close to getting to zero. We also have the global fund which works on malaria, HIV and tuberculosis, which in total at this point saves 27 million lives. This generosity is reducing global poverty.

Gates is optimistic in the ability of the society to maintain this progress of reducing poverty and improving health. Still, it is a huge challenge, partly because of the demographics of where people are being born. Worldwide, the number of births per year has peaked to about 41 million and will go down slightly over the rest of century. The births in Sub-Saharan Africa amount for 25% of all births. Over the course of the century, it becomes about half. In the rest of the world, the birth rate has gone down to 72 million, but Africa is making up for that. By 2050, 90% of the people in extreme poverty will live in Sub-Saharan Africa. By 2040, the poorest parts of Africa (Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo) will have 40% of the people in extreme poverty. Those countries combined will have a population of 600 million, more than the entire European Union. According to Gates, investing in human capital, meaning health and education of the young generation, can represent for Africa a source of innovation and of great labor. It can make the global economy grow, because young people will be a source of great productivity. Therefore, investments are needed on the health front as well in the HIV epidemics.

Gates explains that he was at a conference in Berlin where scientists from all over the world talked about vaccines and new drugs. The next few years will see the rise of a new approach to making vaccines called mRNA vaccines, which several companies including CureVac in Germany are currently working on. It will shorten the time required to make vaccines from three or more years of today to a few months. A lot of focus is on the research budget, which should help to create the tools for the farmers to have better seeds and avoid the incredible damage on their field due to climate change. A great amount of innovation is needed in climate change, in order to avoid the greenhouse effect gas emissions and to help the farmers in Africa, who will be the greatest suffering caused by climate change because they will have 1 year every 5 without good crops. The EU’s leadership on these issues allows Gates to go to all the countries including the US and maintain commitment to this, which is why he hopes that the next budget in the EU will bring development assistance to a new level.

The floor is given to Imme Scholtz, Director of the German Development Institute. A renewed partnership and generosity, in Scholtz’s opinion, are both built on the insight that cooperation is a better approach for solving common problems than confrontation and withdrawing back behind your own borders and putting your own interests first. The European Think Tank group have identified areas that represent common problems, but whose answers are not clear neither in Europe nor elsewhere: the sustainability revolution, how to convert and adapt to climate change, how to make globalization fair, the digitalization question… The advancement of digitalization and artificial intelligence will require new regulations, to give poorer countries and people with old and outdated qualifications a chance to live in such an economy. Another area to work on is the prevention of conflict, by defending international cooperation, multilateralism, democracy, the rule of law and human rights. There’s an unfair perception of globalization and multilateral cooperation as an elite project and not one that benefits the majorities. The EU has a role to play but member states too: if you don’t find the right partners on the other side, Europe’s effort goes into a void. With digitalization, we really need to invest in understanding what it means technologically and where new opportunities arise for countries with different competitive advantages.

The STGs and the 2030 agenda is actually a big encouragement for public regulation and for engaging in policies for the common good at the national, local and global level. There needs to be coherence between international and domestic action. These are important topics for campaigning for the next European elections and even though it might not be the winning ticket in the short term, it is still important to plant this debate in our societies also to understand how misguided the short-term nationalist interpretation of the current challenges are.

Riccardo Cucconi