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Euromed Special Feature : Social development in MEDA bilateral co-operation

The social side of Euro-Mediterranean co-operation has now been put at the heart of the MED Committee’s discussions while some believe it has effectively been pushed into the background. It was the subject of an exchange of views at the 26 September meeting, and it will be on the agenda of a further meeting.

Social aspects are already featured in the Barcelona Declaration as key components of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership’s 3rd chapter. They have been meant to play a dual role, both as a policy designed to make up for short term drawbacks in the gradual establishment of the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area, and as an essential factor for the development of society in Mediterranean Partners. The latter is an absolute prerequisite for economic development.

Financial and technical support provided by the EU under social development has been influenced by the ‘European Social Model’, and is in fields as diverse as health, education, the labour market (including vocational training), local development, and social protection. Equal opportunities between women and men, and promoting civil society have increasingly been at the forefront of those operations.

Social development is included in all the National Indicative Programmes (NIPs) 2002-2004 that currently build the framework for EU bilateral co-operation with Mediterranean Partners. In this context 24 projects are foreseen for a total amount of € 529 million. Another 31 projects are being implemented, accounting for a total € 1,350 million.

The European Commission unit in charge of the bilateral aspects of social development within the South Mediterranean, Near and Middle East Directorate of EuropeAid Cooperation Office is headed by Elisabeth Féret. For the purpose of the following interview she was surrounded with Corinne André (Gender Issues); Patrick Berckmans (Health), and Fabienne Bessonne (Education and Vocational Training). Euromed Special Feature asked them about today’s challenges and prospects in this regard.


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Euromed Special Feature: European Development Commissioner Poul Nielson recently restated the European Commission’s commitment to devote no less than 35% of its development aid to social matters. Where are we now in the Mediterranean region?

Elisabeth Féret: The Commission’s political commitment to devote over 35% of its assistance to social matters has been an objective pursued and maintained all over the world. It has to be said that in the Mediterranean we are pursuing a dual objective in the short and medium-term, that is to help our Partners reach target 2010 through successful economic transition under decent social and human conditions. There is an important social chapter in the Barcelona Declaration, and in the Association Agreements. Hence activities to improve social conditions are not only about health and basic education that have been prioritised in other parts of the world. Other aspects of human development have to be tackled such as vocational training, and dealing with the social impact of economic restructuring. Changes brought about by economic transition indeed carry risks of social break-up. This aspect is clearly reflected in the National Indicative Programmes (NIPs). Social protection is likewise particularly important, not only in terms of basic healthcare and health insurance, but also in fields such as unemployment, pensions, and child benefit. Social protection needs have been included in all Country Strategy Papers, but could not be transposed into the NIPs 2002-2004. The European Union can tap vast reserves of experience in this regard, based on common values of fairness. The EU possesses some added value, and is well placed to support Partners in the South. There are important needs to be met. Hence the 35% objective.


Do you consider support to civil society as part of the social sector?

E.F.: Yes, definitely. The programming for 2002-2004 has marked a turning point in the way problems related to civil society participation are being dealt with. Targeted operations in this area have been for the first time explicitly provided for in the NIPs.


In social matters as in all others nothing can be done without definite national policies in the Partners. Given the wide variety of situations and of governments do you think the National Indicative Programmes 2002-2004 have a sufficient focus on social questions? As the Commission wants to promote a comprehensive approach, what measure of success are the Partners achieving?

E.F.: Social matters and all that is related to national policies in social fields constitute important and specific problems in the region, and that will be confirmed further in the next few years. Whatever sectors of the economy are supported, there will be a very large social impact in the region. Social chapters have been relatively well presented in the Country Strategy Papers. And transposition into Indicative Programmes has to a certain extent started as vocational training has been addressed, as well as all social sectors directly linked to the economy. Access to healthcare and to basic services like education has not been treated in the same way, although it forms the basis for human development and social inclusion. Thus the question of the right balance is to be given serious consideration. In the health sector for instance our function is not to operate basic health projects, but rather to help Partners carry out reforms necessary for giving populations financial and other access to relevant services. A different approach has thus to be found, which in those areas is particularly difficult.


What room is there within MEDA bilateral co-operation for fighting poverty to-day and preventing likely poverty to-morrow? Can the fight against poverty be integrated into regional development, given the present disparities in some Partners? Do Social Development Funds provide a solution for the whole region?

E.F.: There are 3 questions in one. First of all fighting poverty is one of the EU’ s priorities in development co-operation the world over. What is MEDA-specific is that in 2010 a free-trade area should be established between the EU and Southern Mediterranean countries. This is why we have to look at the effects of economic change on poverty in years to come, and not only at poverty to day. We are working hard fighting that poverty. One way to do it is through the various social sectors as some root causes for poverty lie in education, health, and the role of women. The other way is to encourage and to help Partners develop a mid-term vision of what is going to happen to them. In the least developed countries Bretton Woods institutions have supported setting up PRSPs (Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers). In the Mediterranean some comprehensive projects for fighting poverty are also promoted, like Jordan’s SETP economic support programme (Social and Economic Transformation Programme), and Egypt’s APAP (Anti-Poverty Action Plan) which is being launched. A contribution by the Commission could be envisaged.

On the regional side you have to admit that disparities within one and the same country can be really substantial. Commission support is then based on two complementary strategies. One is through national multisector comprehensive programmes that can involve setting up public/private Social Development Funds. The other goes through a territorial approach targeting the most disadvantaged regions. A good example of a territorial approach is Algeria’s Programme for the Development of the North East provinces where local development plans are funded by the European Union, priorities being defined jointly by officials, businesses, civil society, and NGOs.


To what extent is civil society needed for social development on the ground? Civil society in the Partners is not always well structured and able to act within the right environment. What are the implications for MEDA? And what of human rights?

E.F.: You have to first define civil society. In a broad perspective it includes non-governmental players such as NGOs, media, trade unions, and other social partners. Support to civil society comprises various lines of action. One of them is about strengthening civil society players on the ground (NGOs and associations involved in day-to-day issues, and local decision making), and develops within local projects. Another aspect is support for human rights, which reflects awareness of democracy. It is a very sensitive area where Commission support has used the human rights budget line. It is now featured in the Country Strategy Papers, and in the NIPs. But governments in the Partners see it as their responsibility and suspect interference in their own affairs, in their culture. Anyway we have to keep in mind that we are operating in a different culture. There is a third line of action between the first two that I think it is very important we try to promote through the NIPs, and that is dialogue between government and civil society players. Such facilitation of dialogue through specific panels for discussion forms a new component we are developing.


What is the real weight of education and training in the NIPs 2002-2004? And what of health?

Fabienne Bessonne: The word ‘education’ can be seen in every NIP, thanks in particular to the extension to the MEDA region of the TEMPUS Programme of university co-operation. There are still enormous needs, though, because the MEDA region combines developing and transition countries’ problems. As regards the first type of problems, massive illiteracy is to be found in the MEDA region, which had 40.7 million functional illiterates in 1999, that is 30% of all adults, and 40% of women. In the same year 83% of children were in full-time education. Huge efforts are still to be made to keep children at school, not to mention gender and regional disparities. As to needs typical of a transition economy, they are related to the knowledge-based society seen in the perspective of the 2010 Free-Trade Area. The NIPs 2000-2001 focused on education while those for 2002-2004 have mostly stressed vocational training. European involvement in all those areas should however remain substantial.

E.F.: The problem is in fact the same with health. Even though in the MEDA region the definition ‘Social Development = Health + Basic Education’ has been provided with new components some aspects of health have changed over the years. What should now be established is perhaps not so much hospitals and healthcare centres as reforms to ensure an efficient and sustainable health system. Big reforms like these are linked to major issues such as healthcare financing, opening the market for medicines, and new WTO standards. Of course the NIPs are to be focused on short-term social needs related to economic transition (vocational training; industrial restructuring) while taking into account the fact that the basic foundations of society still have to be supported so as to avoid a social rift.


Strong population growth combined with infant mortality in most Mediterranean Partners result in both health and economic problems. To what extent does the MEDA Programme help improve the situation in the face of cultural impediments in this matter?

Patrick Berckmans: It has to be noted first that with the exception of the West Bank/Gaza, Jordan, and Syria population growth in the region has remained well below that of many developing countries. Everywhere life expectancy is around 70 years on average. Those countries are therefore in demographic transition. Their health requirements are simultaneously those of developing countries, and those of ageing populations. The infant mortality rate in the Mediterranean is 3 to 5 percent, ten times the European rate but also ten times less than in the ACP countries (Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific).

E.F.: Specific family planning or population projects were supported in all Mediterranean Partners for a number of years. They now have to be built into national health policies.


The role of women in those Partners with bilateral co-operation links deserves some boosting as stated in all international reports on the region. A lack of women’s empowerment is noted in a recent UNDP document on Arab countries. What can be done within MEDA in this respect?

Corinne André: The UNDP report focuses on the most glaring deficit, but the lack of empowerment is one in several issues when you look at all the disparities shown by women-related indicators. MEDA policy falls within Commission legislation on gender mainstreaming in development aid, and we use the main tools they provide, namely special programmes for women, and increasingly the gender-mainstreaming of all projects. In MEDA II this is notably reflected in the fact that women’s issues are taken on board at the programming stage in Country Strategy Papers, and in the NIPs, then at every stage of the project cycle. Taking women into account is therefore done through gender mainstreaming in the various areas of our activities. It must be stressed that the MEDA Programme deals with areas where disparities between men and women are highest, notably access to education and vocational training, to health, to income-generating activities, as well as women’s participation in political life, and awareness of their rights. In all those areas work has to go deeper, and gender indicators need to be reinforced. But MEDA operations for women also need to be extended to those areas that are now the least sensitive to the gender issue, essentially Structural Adjustment Programmes (except for those on health and education), and trade programmes.


The insufficient provision of IT equipment and Internet access in most Partners receiving bilateral assistance is also underlined in the UNDP report. How can this gap be filled in the fields of education and vocational training?

F.B.: The issue of access to the information society and to new information technologies is not only an equipment problem. The UNDP report on Human Development in the Arab World has identified 3 deficits: freedom; women’s empowerment; and knowledge. These deficits are linked and must be dealt with simultaneously. Developing a knowledge-based society requires making information more freely available, and stimulating creativity and discernment. The number of Internet users in the MEDA region is still very low, with the exception of Lebanon. It is only 1.5 percent against a world average of 5.47 percent.

E.F.: The fairly recent evolution of requirements in this area, and the necessity to create demand for knowledge among the populations belong to the future of programming. The Commission must take this into account to be present in those developments.

As a conclusion on the whole interview I think that as the UNDP report has been released the relevance of support to the social areas within the Barcelona Process and the Association Agreements in the MEDA region appears quite obvious. The report shows how true it is that economic development cannot go without a social chapter. The social component comes first; it is manifold, and highly integrated; it cannot be handled separately through case by case progress, and no single element can possibly be treated more favourably than another. The 3 deficits are major deficits, and within European assistance we have to tackle them jointly and complementarily.

Brussels,11 04 2002
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