Peer reviews of DAC members

Belgium (1997), Development Co-operation Review



General situation and new policy orientations

The Belgian aid system is currently going through a particularly crucial transition period, and other changes will be introduced over the coming months. Although there are already a number of encouraging developments, it is still too soon to gauge the success of these reforms. Over the past two years, the relevance and effectiveness of some of the courses of action undertaken in the context of Belgian development co-operation have come in for a great deal of criticism, and it was with the object of silencing that criticism that the government decided to reorganise the administration of aid completely and to rethink its development co-operation policy. A parliamentary monitoring commission was set up and, in autumn1996, the State Secretary for Development Co-operation, Mr.R.Moreels, submitted to it an action plan entitled Annoncer la couleur--Plan d'avenir pour la cooperation belge au développement. The said plan, which has not yet been approved by the Council of Ministers, is in the process of being amended to allow for the reactions of the various actors involved in development co-operation. The State Secretary for Development Co-operation wants to give Belgium the medium- and long-term development co-operation strategy it has never had, the lack of which was moreover reproved by the Development Assistance Committee(DAC) at the time of the last peer review of Belgium in 1994. The adoption of such a strategy would respond to a need and constitute real progress for Belgian development co-operation policy.

The new Belgian policy thrust spelt out in Annoncer la couleur shares many of the objectives and strategies of the report approved by the DAC Shaping the 21stCentury: the Contribution of Development Co-operation, OECD, Paris,1996, particularly as regards the partnership concept with the developing countries. The priorities which now shape the Belgian aid programme are: sustainable human development via measures to combat physical poverty, support for democratisation and development and backing for networks which promote peace through reconciliation. The Belgian strategy underlines the humanistic vocation of development co-operation and sees human beings as central to the concerns of the Belgian aid programme. Special importance is also attached to the promotion of small and medium-sized businesses and to partnerships with private sector firms.

Social development is seen as one of the cornerstones of sustainable development and the fight against poverty. One of the main channels for the financing of specific projects to combat poverty is through the Fonds de Survie pour le Tiers Monde (Third World Survival Fund) implemented jointly by multilateral organisations and Belgian NGOs. Ideally, the Belgian authorities need to draw on the experience gained from the Survival Fund for the benefit of other Belgian development co-operation projects.

Belgium is to include conflict prevention and societal consolidation in its priorities, and has stressed the similarities between the Belgian approach and the guidelines adopted by the DAC at its last High-Level Meeting in May1997.

The action plan drawn up by the State Secretary for Development Co-operation has been supplemented by strategic papers and sectoral action plans devised by the Administration générale de la coopération au développement(General Administration for Development Co-operation--AGCD). The latter mainly concern health, agriculture and food security, small basic infrastructures, gender equality, conflict prevention and peacekeeping, education and economic development, looked at from the microeconomic standpoint. These sectoral strategic papers have been seen as a positive development in Belgium's aid programme, and as complying with the DAC recommendations. The draft action plan had been criticised for its lack of a macroeconomic perspective on development, and for the insufficient importance attached to the environment and gender equality. The updated version of the plan, submitted to the Council of ministers in October1997, has further developed the macro-economic aspects of development, gender equality, environment, the social economy and the promotion of small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Henceforth, the three basic principles governing Belgian development co-operation policy are to be simplicity, transparency and effectiveness, implying sectoral and geographic concentration of the aid programme, together with efforts to consolidate multilateral co-operation. Belgian aid will in future be concentrated on health care, education, agriculture, basic infrastructure and societal consolidation. Similarly, the bilateral aid provided by AGCD is to be limited to 19countries and one region. Priority will be given to Sub-Saharan Africa and those countries with which Belgium has had particularly close ties. Lastly, Belgium wishes to concentrate its multilateral approach and reduce the number of multilateral organisations to which it contributes, especially when the amounts involved are small.

In order to prevent other inconsistencies arising in the future, the new policy options will also mean abandoning major infrastructure projects and the unilateral suspension of the tying of bilateral Belgian aid disbursed by AGCD.

Aid management

An efficient aid administration has to have the means to implement the policy options laid down and achieve the targets which have been set. In order to remedy the problems that Belgium's aid administration has been faced with for a number of years, the government has decided to reorganise it and redefine its role. AGCD is in future to concentrate on: 1)policy back-up studies; 2)programme and project evaluation; and 3)internal and external controls. New organisational structures were decided upon in January1997 and set up in March1997 with the object of decentralising responsibilities inside AGCD, simplifying procedures and speeding up the handling of dossiers. A "Policy Evaluation and Back-up" Directorate has also been created. Other more fundamental reforms are scheduled. Thus the establishment of a new implementing agency in the form of a public corporation was decided by the Council of Ministers in July1997 and is to be the subject of legislation before the end of the year.

Improving human resource management is one of the major tasks facing the Belgian aid administration, and one which was mentioned in 1994 during the last peer review of Belgian aid. Civil service recruitment has been frozen for a good many years, but the new thrust given to aid administration, which means concentrating human resources on key activities, should enable AGCD to strengthen and shift the focus of its staff. The Civil Service Ministry, which is responsible for the recruitment of civil servants in Belgium, very often does not have specialists in the areas AGCD needs. On the other hand, because of its status AGCD cannot, as a public administration, offer attractive career prospects to co-operation personnel who have experience in the field while, conversely, staff in Brussels are only rarely posted to the developing countries. The result is that AGCD has more and more frequently to resort to staff on fixed-term contracts, with all the problems that this can cause. The creation of the new implementing agency could help to overcome the problem of the shortage of staff and the requisite skills, which is seriously impairing AGCD's effectiveness and competence. It seems, however, regrettable that the competencies of this agency should be limited to direct bilateral assistance which only accounts for a relatively small part of AGCD's activities.

Coupled with the reorganisation of AGCD has been increased delegation of authority at various levels. In the past, relations between the State Secretary and his private office on the one hand and AGCD on the other were not always very clear. As part of an administrative overhaul undertaken by the government, these responsibilities have been redefined under an agreement on labour relations and the delegation of authority between the State Secretary and his office and AGCD, which was signed in February1997. Similarly, a ministerial decision has been taken introducing temporary measures relating to the organisation of responsibilities and the delegation of authority, under the heading of the reform of AGCD, including its local representations. It is to be hoped that this will speed up the processing of dossiers and improve the policy dialogue with local authorities.

In accordance with the recommendations contained in the DAC strategy for the 21stcentury, country strategies are to be devised for Belgian aid programme countries. Four such country notes are currently being prepared on an experimental basis for submission to Parliament.

Although the State Secretary attaches importance to aid evaluation and to the findings thereof being reflected in projects and programmes, a full evaluation function is still only in its infancy. There needs to be a proper policy in this respect, and AGCD needs to be given the means to set up a true evaluation service and follow-up system. Also, there is still room for progress in terms of integrating certain horizontal themes in AGCD's projects and programmes, especially concerning the environment. Despite its lack of resources, the unit responsible for gender equality has had some encouraging results.

Aid policy coherence

Recent years have seen improvements in aid policy coherence--for example, where food security and multilateral debt are concerned--particular responsibility for co-ordinating these themes having been entrusted to an interministerial working party chaired by the State Secretary for Development Co-operation. Where inter-government loans are concerned, however, coherence is still lacking, loans being granted on a case-by-case basis, generally at the request of the recipient country which is itself guided by the Belgian exporter. As a result, these loans are more or less unconnected with development co-operation policy and take no direct account of AGCD's sectoral or geographical policy. The criteria for the granting of State to State loans have, however, recently improved.

Volume of aid

In 1996, Belgian official development assistance totalled $937million, or 0.35per cent of GNP,i.e. a decline in real terms of 6.4per cent on the previous year. It has to be remembered, though, that the high level of Belgian ODA in 1995 was attributable to exceptional multilateral contributions which reverted to their normal level in 1996. At the start of his term of office, the State Secretary for Development Co-operation undertook to do all he could to reverse the downward trend in the share of GNP devoted to aid and to ensure that net ODA was equivalent to at least 0.5per cent of GNP before he left office.
AGCD has for a number of years been finding it impossible to use the budget credits allocated to it, with the result that some BF2billion (approximately $66million) go back into the central budget every year. This situation is partly due to the persistent political troubles that have dogged the three main countries in which Belgian aid used to be concentrated (Burundi, Rwanda and Zaire), but it has been aggravated since 1993 by the abolition of the Fonds de coopération au développement(Development Co-operation Fund--FCD) which used to allow unused appropriations to be carried forward to the following year. Given the tight budget situation, this difficulty in disbursing is one of the main reasons invoked against a significant increase of AGCD's budget.

Although AGCD has recently succeeded in increasing its capacity to disburse, mainly by channelling a growing share of its aid through NGOs and multilateral institutions, achieving the target of 0.5per cent of GNP between now and end-1998 would, given the increase in GNP, be a major challenge.

Public opinion

The State Secretary for Development Co-operation and AGCD attach great importance to development education activities, as a result of which budget appropriations aimed at improving public information and awareness have tripled since 1995. In addition to the traditional information and education activities, the Belgian authorities launched a novel campaign in March1997, which is intended to bring the State Secretary's plan for the future to the attention of the public. Such experiments could usefully be tried by other DAC Member countries.

Public opinion does not show great interest in development co-operation and has reacted unfavourably to a number of events more or less directly linked to Belgium's aid programme. That said, one of the positive results of the Belgian public's loss of confidence over the past two years has been that Parliament, which had never been interested in development co-operation, has begun to concern itself with these matters, appointing a monitoring commission which is responsible for analysing the present situation and making recommendations for the future. The commission will very probably become permanent and be made part of the Foreign Affairs Commission.


Over the years, the shortcomings of AGCD deteriorated and led to a serious crisis as from 1995. It is still too soon to say whether the measures taken thus far and the reforms that are now envisaged will suffice to overcome it. The policy options and targets set in the State Secretary's action plan should, at any rate, make for a more transparent and coherent development co-operation policy, provided that the necessary instruments are put in place in the sectors where they are needed.
It is to be hoped that geographical and sectoral concentration and the consolidation of multilateral co-operation will enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the Belgian aid programme. Also needed is a more consistent approach to aid channelled via non-governmental organisations, universities and multilateral aid.
In the context of the reforms currently underway, the Aid administration has major challenges to meet in a number of areas. It will, in particular, have to:

  • increase effectiveness by decentralising operational tasks to specialised structures and by delegating authority internally and to the development co-operation offices/sections;

  • concentrate administrative activities on policy content and the achieving of objectives;

  • monitor efficiency by means of an active policy of evaluation and application of the findings;

  • improve staff skills by means of better training in the key areas of concern and by allowing exchanges of staff between the Brussels headquarters and local offices;

  • improve the management and disbursement capacity;

  • develop a new partnership-based approach, taking advantage of the experience gained from joint management;

  • draw up individual country strategies;

  • use the appropriate tools and management techniques to carry out professional-type approaches vis-à-vis private-sector SMEs;

  • draw up sectoral policies, with respect in particular to: poverty alleviation, social development, democratisation and human rights, and conflict prevention;

  • integrate the new approach to technical co-operation, in particular set up the executing agency for technical co-operation.

Other action could be considered under the heading of aid co-ordination and coherence.
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