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France, Europe and Development Aid. From the Treaties of Rome to the Present Day

Gérard Bossuat
Gordon D. Cummings


Laure Quennouëlle-Corre

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  • 1  Bossuat, Gérard and Bitsch, Marie-Thérèse (ed.), L’Europe Unie et l’Afrique. De l’idée d’Eurafriqu (...)

1The aim of this symposium was to assess the influence of France and other countries on European development aid policy over the past fifty years; it follows on from a symposium organised by Gérard Bossuat and Marie-Thérèse Bitsch on a similar subject.1 It has been successful in several ways, because much progress has been made in our research. First, the three major phases of European aid have been explained and discussed in line with the changing global context and with the changing power ratios between Member States and aid recipient countries. Second, the importance of people and institutions within the European Commission has been highlighted by many speakers. Finally, the ways in which French and European aid have influenced one another were discussed at length, revealing the breaks and continuities over the medium term.

I. A Refined Chronology of European Development Aid Policy

2The division into three periods which has punctuated this symposium – the beginnings of aid, the extension of the European approach, and then the rethinking of that approach – has proved fruitful because, while it was fairly familiar, new research exploring points of view from outside France and the EEC have refined that division and put it into perspective. In his introduction, Gérard Bossuat first drew attention to the ambiguities of development aid motives: humanitarian considerations often conceal an underlying political or commercial agenda. After France’s exclusive domination of development aid policy up to the mid-1960s, the independence of African countries and the growing assertiveness of the European Commission had an impact on Euro-African relations without leading to any contestation of French dominance (Guia Migani).

3In the second phase, the expansion of the European Community – and parti-
cularly the United Kingdom’s entry – led to the signing of the Lomé I agreements in 1975, extending European aid to former British colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. The expansion marked the start of a decline in French influence, countered by the British, who questioned the effectiveness of aid and the amount of Member States’ contributions. However, Gordon Cumming shed new light on this point by accurately analysing the influence of Britain’s position on the European Commission’s stance – and vice versa. These mutual influences varied greatly from one decade to the next, depending on the changing national and international political context. The 1970s also saw the rising power of new players among the emerging countries and the start of the North-South dialogue. Taking account of those factors, the European Community tried to secure its place as the partner of aid recipient countries (Giuliano Garavini). But in the following decade, the question mark over the earlier development model and the switch to a neo-liberal trade order changed things. While the new aid paradigms established by the Washington consensus (US Treasury, World Bank and IMF) in the late 1980s were taken on board by the Commission, there was an added social dimension concerning structural adjustment (Philippe Hugon).

4Finally, the third phase centred on the 2000 Cotonou agreements and the emergence, in 2005, of a European Consensus around the same development vision, which Member States also endorsed in their bilateral policy (Bernard Petit). Then there is the question of the autonomy of European development aid policy and its long-term vision, when it becomes a part of the Union’s foreign policy. Alongside this timid reform, various factors are contributing to a reduction in the European Union’s importance on the international scene: first, the creation of the WTO in 1995 and the review of tariff preferences changed the very idea of development, putting more emphasis on trade policy as a development tool (Olivier Cattaneo). Second, the start of the 21st century saw the entry of new players other than public institutions; the sudden rise of civil society first played an increasing role in the public debate on aid, but the main factor is the advent of private businesses with which public institutions now want to cooperate in the field.

II. People and Institutions

5In the history of European development aid, the socio-administrative dimension largely reflects changing power relations between recipient countries and Member States. If there is a key question that arises when we study the way development aid is implemented at European level – amount, criteria, choice of beneficiary countries, etc. – it concerns the decision-making process within a complex institution, with its mysterious procedures that outside observers sometimes cannot fathom. This book identifies and describes the entity which, over the years, devised, negotiated and implemented European aid policy: the Directorate General of Cooperation, and later Development – DG VIII. This was where a European consensus on development was gradually forged, a vision quite different from the positions of the Member States. Unlike the Member States’ representations, which are there to defend their national interests, DG VIII gradually became an autonomous entity dealing with aid questions. The expertise of its staff was supplemented by the ability of its officials to detach themselves from their national origins and become Europeans, seeking a consensus, it is true, but serving the interests of beneficiary countries or those of the European Community rather than their own country. However, like any administrative institution, it had to defend its territory, e.g. against the Directorate General for Trade, which ended up taking over the Trade division of DG VIII – and hence Europe’s trade policy in relation to the countries receiving aid.

6At DG VIII, there were some key people behind the European aid project, and various speakers have shown how this human factor was always crucial. When the Common Market was launched, it was Jacques Ferrandi who imposed the French colonial administrative model in the name of an association which France insisted on at the time of the Treaty of Rome negotiations, as Véronique Dimier described. When the former colonial administrator wanted to devise a less technocratic and more pragmatic approach than that of the World Bank, he continued in practice the relationship of interdependence between France and the African leaders, a relationship singularly lacking in transparency. Later, his successors, the German Dieter Frisch and the Frenchman Bernard Petit, both demonstrated their ability to transcend national divisions and work out compromises acceptable to everyone. The strength of their convictions and their personality were undeniably factors in their attempts to modify the European position, e.g. on the transparency of relations with beneficiary countries or the political and social “sustainability” of structural adjustment in the 1990s.

7Finally, thanks to the action of certain European Commissioners (Jean-François Deniau, Claude Cheysson, Edgard Pisani), the French played a considerable role at the political level of the Commission. While French influence declined as the EEC was enlarged and more powerful new players came on to the international scene, France remained a driving force behind the implementation of aid policy. That is probably one factor favouring continuity over the half century considered.

III. French Aid, European Aid, Breaks and Continuities

8Apart from the contrasting pattern of the European Community’s influence over development aid, the first point to note is the constant maintenance of a high level of European aid, as demonstrated by François Pacquement. Conversely, in qualitative and geographical terms, European aid objectives have changed since the early days: in the beginning, aid was largely based on geopolitical considerations and financial wheeler-dealing. Later, in the 1970s, more specific goals were defined, linked to poverty reduction and the aim of aid effectiveness. Following the Lomé III agreements, a more political dimension gained prominence (human rights, governance), then the humanitarian dimension emerged, together with the underlying question of migration. In addition there was strong criticism of tied aid and the lack of coherence and coordination in national and European aid. Aid effectiveness has been a constant topic for thirty years. Apart from that, progress in terms of goals has been significant.

9But historians are interested above all in the question of the possible existence of a
European idea or doctrine on aid. Did Europe genuinely exist on the development aid scene? This assertion of European identity on the international scene was evident in the 1970s with Lomé I, but largely failed from the 1990s owing to the dominance of the Bretton Woods institutions in defining the new aid paradigms. Possible differences between the European position and that of the IMF or the World Bank in defining ODA criteria would probably be worth examining in more detail.

10However, research has shown that the Commission sometimes managed to influence the position of its Member States, such as the United Kingdom; it did not adopt the British hard line on the economic and financial reforms of structural adjustment in the 1990s. It also exerted considerable influence over the French position on aid allocation criteria and action in favour of aid effectiveness, as Corinne Balleix clearly demonstrated. Conversely, she recounted France’s ability to resist the Europeanisation of its policy. And while a quarter of French aid is currently channelled via Europe, France continues to act in its own specific way in particular by maintaining the Franc Zone and keeping up the flows of aid to sub-Saharan Africa, and also through the dynamism of the French Development Agency. From that point of view, there are long-term trends underlying French aid. Finally, while continuing to prefer bilateral aid, France intends to have a say in the development aid debate, within the EU or in the international institutions where it has positioned its experts (World Bank, IMF, WTO).

IV. Towards new horizons

11The fourth part of this symposium looked at the future, and the topics raised by the donors and beneficiaries of aid are worth taking up. Here, too, there was a constant concern with aid effectiveness (Tertius Zongo), the need for innovation and coordination between international actors (Omar Kabbaj), and equally the pursuit of partnerships with new emerging countries and between bilateral agencies (Dov Zerah), and the maintenance of a united European perspective (Philippe de Fontaine Vive). As for political aid conditionality, at a time when China has become a development player, that remains a matter of debate between donors.

12To sum up, the history of development aid reflects the political, economic and social changes in the world and contributes to an understanding of those changes.


1  Bossuat, Gérard and Bitsch, Marie-Thérèse (ed.), L’Europe Unie et l’Afrique. De l’idée d’Eurafrique à la convention de Lomé I, Bruylant, Brussels, 2005.


Laure Quennouëlle-Corre is a research director at the CNRS-CRH (Centre de recherches historiques). She teaches economic history at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne. Specialising in contemporary financial history, she is more particularly concerned with financial markets, financial regulation and the role of the Ministry for the Economy and Finance in economic life. She co-organises a seminar on the history of that ministry. She is a graduate of the IEP and has a doctorate in history.

© Institut de la gestion publique et du développement économique, 2013

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