The Joint Africa-EU Strategy Must Support Civil Society

If the Joint Africa-EU Strategy loses sight of its people-centered focus, it will become an irrelevant project for the populations of both continents.

The 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) is one of the main frameworks for Africa-EU relations. When adopted, it intended to end the unbalanced donor-recipient relationship typical of past relations between Africa and the EU, and to be a truly diverse and people-focused initiative where civil society had a key place alongside institutions and member governments.

The upcoming Africa-EU Summit in April 2014 envisages its reform. Indeed, six years on a key issue concerns the ability of the partnership to deliver concrete results for the lives of European and African citizens and prove its added value in relation to other frameworks of EU-Africa engagement. All partners harbor doubts that the partnership in its current form can promote significant change in Africa-EU relations.

Structural impediments to a more effective JAES include cumbersome decision-making procedures and excessively broad areas of focus; unbalanced funding (with African states and financial institutions more reluctant to provide resources); little connection with other international processes such as the Cotonou Agreement and the Post-2015 Development Agenda; and no dedicated funds for civil society participation. Politically, the project has lost momentum. Thorny questions such as negotiations over the Economic Partnership Agreements between Africa and the EU or the role of the International Criminal Court undermine the relationship between the two continents.

Societal challenges also remain. Events in Africa and Europe (the North African uprisings, the rise of populism, and economic uncertainty in Europe) divert public attention from international projects towards internal matters. Participation and consultation of civil society are organized in different ways in Africa and in Europe, and suffer from a lack of dedicated resources, making alignment of civil society methods and objectives difficult to achieve.

A civil society intercontinental forum with 32 African and 36 European civil society organizations (CSOs) gathered in Brussels in October 2013 to assess JAES progress and discuss current reform proposals from African and EU institutional representatives. From the beginning, CSOs have played a key role in identifying strategic priorities, and implementing and monitoring the initiatives adopted in the two JAES action plans (2007-2010 and 2010-2013).

This currently happens through participation in JAES structures such as the informal Expert Groups (iJEGs) which gather sectoral expertise and institutional representatives, and the Joint Task Force (JTF) where the EU and AU Commissions convene and where civil society participates when invited. Eight thematic partnerships (on peace and security, democratic governance and human rights, migration and mobility, Millennium Development Goals, climate change and environment, science and information technology, trade and regional integration, and energy), ensure that civil society can contribute observations on proposals and participate in their implementation.

Civil society representatives at the forum recognized that the JAES has improved dialogue between the EU and Africa, but remain concerned by the scarcity  of concrete achievements. CSOs also noted the low level of engagement by member states on both sides.

Current EU and African proposals to reform the JAES insist on the necessity to avoid duplications with other international partnerships and processes, such as the UN’s work on human rights or the development frameworks. African partners suggest the streamlining of structures within the JAES. European proposals focus on avoiding the creation of new bodies and building on the functioning structures such as the EU Council working groups. This would ensure that the JAES is associated with existing structures and earns early buy-in from member states including during implementation.

Both proposals tend to exclude CSOs from substantial deliberations. Increased formality of iJEGs and JTFs would result in a drastic reduction of the role of civil society, most likely limited to reporting from separate CSO deliberations. If this was the case, a fundamental pillar of the partnership’s democratic governance would be eliminated in favour of a purely institution-to-institution approach. The "people centered" character of JAES would be lost and civil society would be in a much weaker position to contribute to and monitor the partnership.

The thematic priorities for the next action plan are also unclear. The EU insists on peace, democracy, and human rights; sustainable growth; and tackling global issues. African partners suggest a broader focus on peace and security; democracy, good governance, human rights and cultural cooperation; continental integration through, inter alia, accelerated infrastructure, development projects, investment and promotion of intra-Africa trade; sustainable and inclusive development; and human capital development.

Civil society has identified the following areas of common concern that should guide the JAES initiatives and identify where it has added value:

  • migration;
  • food security;
  • social and economic inequalities;
  • peace and security governance;
  • political participation, human rights, and transparency;
  • trade, regional integration, and investments.

A closer look at other processes like the Africa Peer Review Mechanism, which has compiled its own best practices, would also help to identify areas where thematic priorities can align or complement existing frameworks.

Civil society has shown consistent support for the JAES project as a framework for EU-Africa relations and for building shared outlooks. However CSOs claim that it is important to ensure that the financial burden of supporting the JAES is equally shared by European and African partners.

It is also important to address politically sensitive issues such as Economic Partnership Agreements and international justice. In this regard civil society could develop concrete initiatives by increasing advocacy, engaging in intercontinental monitoring mechanisms, and develop policy proposals that suggest ways out of the current blockages.

NGOs agree that it is important to simplify procedures and identify key thematic areas of joint work where progress can benefit both European and African societies. However, they believe such choices should be based on a thorough evaluation of the past two action plans and the added value of the JAES as opposed to other international frameworks. Currently, no realistic assessment has been communicated by the institutions to indicate where the JAES can make a difference in EU-Africa relations.  

Structurally, CSOs have suggested setting up civil society working groups whose representatives would also sit in decision making fora. The creation of a permanent secretariat would facilitate civil society work and function as a documentation center where information on initiatives undertaken under JAES can be preserved and accessed transparently. Finally, civil society supports the promotion of gender equality on both continents and suggests that an intercontinental women’s forum could be created and supported through the Pan-African financing mechanism

The third action plan will take the JAES into its second decade of existence. Thematic priorities and structural reforms (including of financing mechanisms) are key to ensuring that it can deliver concrete results. If it loses sight of its role as a people-centered strategy, it will become an irrelevant project for the populations of both continents. Civil society is an integral part of the strategy and must be supported in this role. 

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