Peer reviews of DAC members

Belgium. Development Co-operation Review (2001)


Development Co-operation Review: Main Findings and Recommendations

See also Belgium's Aid-at-a-Glance

Reforms of the Belgian aid administration since 1997

Since the last review by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in September 1997, the Belgian aid system has undergone major legislative changes and sweeping administrative reforms:

On 15 May 1999 the Chamber of Representatives passed a Law on Belgian International Co-operation. It introduced the notion of "international co-operation", whose goal is defined as sustainable development, partnership and relevance to development. It further provided that bilateral co-operation should be concentrated on 25 countries (or regional country organisations), five sectors and three cross-cutting themes. Last, multilateral co-operation and indirect co-operation via non-governmental partners were further clarified.

A public corporation - Coopération technique belge (CTB) - was set up in late 1998 to implement government-to-government co-operation, with its headquarters in Brussels. A corporation for promoting investments in developing countries, BIO, is to be established shortly. The policy-framing and planning function, in contrast, was entrusted to the Direction générale de la coopération internationale (DGCI) , in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and International Co-operation. In addition, a new function of special evaluator was attached to the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reporting directly to Parliament.

A further reform on the horizon: the devolution of responsibility for aid

The inner Cabinet of Ministers decided on 15 October 2000 to devolve further powers to the sub-national authorities by transferring responsibility for the co-operation budget ("defederalisation"). In principle, entire or partial responsibility for official development assistance (ODA), together with the related federal budget, would be transferred to the communities and regions in 2004.

The Belgian Senate has organised hearings on the matter, and for the moment opinions are still divided as to the timeliness of such a reform and its final impact. The DAC Secretariat was invited to attend a hearing on 20 March 2001. It emphasised that "defederalisation" would involve three main risks:

It would undermine current efforts to reform aid administration and to achieve greater stability, continuity and institutional effectiveness, including reforms implemented as part of the broader reform process of the Belgian public administration.

The internal consistency of the aid system as a whole, in terms of its relevance, effectiveness and efficiency, and of the strategic relations between its bilateral and multilateral components, would be diminished. The same would apply to the consistency between ODA and the other policies that have an impact on the developing countries.

A purely Belgian approach to indirect co-operation would be reinforced to the detriment of the processes and dynamics under way in several partner countries, in particular via the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), sectoral approaches, budgetary and programme aid, etc.

This analysis is shared by the Development Assistance Committee.

Aid volume and outlook

In net disbursement terms, the volume of Belgium's official development assistance totalled USD 760 million in 1999, equivalent to 0.30% of gross national product (GNP). As a percentage of GNP Belgium ranks 11th among the DAC countries, while in absolute volume terms it ranks 15th. ODA in 1999, measured as a percentage of GNP, is the lowest-ever historical result. However, the Belgian authorities have the firm intention to reverse the trend. In 2000 Belgium's ODA rose to USD 812 million, or 0.36% of GNP. That figure ranked Belgium 6th among DAC Members. In the same year it was decided to increase the co-operation budget by a total of USD 365.5 million (at the 2000 exchange rate) over the next three years, 2001-2003. In spite of this encouraging trend, there is little hope that Belgian ODA will, over the medium term, reach the stated target of 0.7% of GNP.

Progress since the last review

Reforms: thrust and implementation

The recent reform process is part of the follow-up given by the federal government to the recommendations of the parliamentary monitoring commission set up in response to widespread public criticism of the relevance and effectiveness of Belgian aid. In 1997 the commission put forward a number of recommendations designed to clarify the objectives and basic principles of Belgian co-operation, enhance the management capacity of the aid administration and introduce a separation between policy-making and programme and project implementation. The new law on international co-operation and the measures taken since late 1998 are a response to the recommendations and to the thrust of international consensus on aid. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Secretary for Development Co-operation have concluded an agreement whereby a separate budget for international co-operation would be maintained in the Ministry. All these measures are an important step forward in the process of modernising Belgian aid.

Targeting of bilateral and multilateral aid

In 1998 and 1999 Belgium's bilateral assistance represented 62% and 59% respectively of the total volume of ODA. With regard to recipient countries, in the same years the proportion of Belgium's bilateral ODA which went to the least developed countries (LLDCs) - 47% and 43% respectively - was well above the DAC average of 22%. Adding in the other low-income countries, the "targeting" of Belgium's bilateral ODA on the poorest countries (73% and 68% respectively) was also well above the DAC average of 52%. That indicates a deliberate effort to concentrate ODA in terms of the relative poverty of recipient countries, first and foremost in sub-Saharan Africa.

ODA broke down, as between bilateral and multilateral assistance, at around 60-40% for the period 1998-99, a position that is likely to continue over the coming years. The proportion of multilateral aid is above the DAC average of 30%. Belgium has recently been seeking to refocus its multilateral action on a smaller number of international institutions. The Law of 25 May 1999 calls for multilateral co-operation to be concentrated on some 20 international organisations.

Poverty alleviation

For Belgium, combating poverty holds a central place in efforts to achieve sustainable development. Its reference to the political dimension of poverty highlights the close relation between the fundamental human needs and human rights. But elementary needs cannot be satisfied unless a number of preconditions are met. For this reason Belgium couples respect for the safety and freedom of men and women living in insecure circumstances due to war and social injustice with its priority aim of combating poverty. This goes hand in hand with special attention to the rights of children, who are the first victims of poverty and war. Combating poverty hence becomes a matter of redistribution and empowerment as well, in short a matter of rights. Belgium's approach and the operational principles that it has defined take full account of DAC directives on the subject. The country strategy and sectoral papers are to take this priority into account and will be consistent with PRSP process.

Promotion of the private sector

Belgium recognises the key role of the local private sector, especially small and medium enterprises and micro-firms. As a result it has recently established a policy, a programme and appropriate instruments to promote the private sector in poor countries. Technical support in the form of grants or other non-recoverable contributions will usually be handled by CTB. But direct and indirect financial contributions, in the form of recoverable investment, will be handled through a corporation for promoting investment in developing countries, BIO, which is to be set up in 2001.

Challenges for the future

Consolidation of the current reforms

Further efforts are essential to consolidate the reforms under way and ensure greater stability, continuity and institutional effectiveness. In particular, the reforms necessitate the emergence of a new institutional culture in DGCI and close collaboration between it, CTB and the future BIO, as well as between DGCI and the co-operation attachés. For some DGCI staff, the challenge is to focus on the strategic aspects, to draw up CTB's operational and administrative mandates, and to implement and monitor overall and sectoral policies. In contrast, for other departments and the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the reform entails acceptance of the distinctive character of DGCI and development co-operation.

"Defederalisation" of aid

The decision by the inner Cabinet of Ministers to devolve responsibility for aid is capable of disrupting the reforms in progress. However, the terms of the government statement are fairly ambiguous and lend themselves to a maximalist or minimalist interpretation. The exact division of responsibilities between the federal government, the communities and the regions has not been worked out in detail. There is thus room for manoeuvre in the discussions and negotiations between the various actors and partners. In this regard, the possibility of transfers of responsibility for aid from the federal government to the communities and regions, as indicated by the federal government in October 2000, causes concern to DAC Members, at a time when the international community is looking for increased policy consistency, better co-ordination and integration of strategies, and greater effectiveness in the field, and has resolved to take steps to strengthen these aspects of co-operation policy. It is hence important to ensure that the federal government does not lose all responsibility for bilateral aid, which should remain joint on grounds of credibility and coherence.

Policy coherence

The starting point for policy coherence is the government statement of July 1999 and the two policy memoranda prepared for the foreign policy and international co-operation sectors. The Council of Ministers is the highest forum for securing consistency in federal policy. For a number of years an inter-ministerial working party for development co-operation has been seeking to promote greater synergy between operations by individual federal ministries responsible for formulating and implementing policy and action impacting on the countries of the South. The Council of Ministers recently decided to reactivate this working party. The major challenge lies in the uncertainties surrounding the devolution of responsibility for bilateral aid which could result in greater dispersal of ODA, a lack of overall political and strategic unity, compartmentalised implementation and marginalisation of Belgian development workers in the field.

Combating poverty in practice

Belgium attaches undeniable priority to combating poverty, but there is still a long way to go in order to target aid more effectively and to anchor it in country and sectoral strategies. Similarly, it is essential to develop a system of monitoring and evaluation to determine whether international development objectives and specific targets have actually been achieved. Although the list of Belgian ODA recipients has been relatively stable, the geographical cover is very wide, with a tendency to dispersal. With relatively small volumes of ODA, it is hard for Belgium to play a major role in a particular country. The refocusing of bilateral aid on 25 priority countries and regions will call for persevering efforts by the aid administration and attachés in the field. It will also entail the preparation of country strategies in conjunction with the governments concerned, involving civil society and in close co-ordination with other donors. A further challenge is to move progressively from a project approach to a sectoral approach.

Indirect co-operation

Historically, indirect bilateral co-operation has played an important part in Belgian ODA. The leading institutions here (NGOs, universities, research institutes, specialist agencies) have strong regional and community ties and exert significant influence on co-operation policy. There is an impressive number of recognised NGOs (134), which leads to dispersal of assistance, and raises management difficulties for DGCI, even though programme approaches encouraging NGOs to combine are being developed. What is more, "defederalisation" is likely to cause greater dispersal of NGO operations inasmuch as the largest agencies, which have to date remained national ones, may be compelled to split up if official budgets are placed on a community basis. Some activities such as teaching, culture and the environment have in fact become the sole concern of the regions and communities. It is accordingly logical for specialist agencies in the regions and communities to be associated in carrying through Belgian development co-operation in their particular spheres. This form of co-operation offers the advantage of direct or closer co-operation between various institutional actors in Belgium and the South. But the clear risk is that it will promote a purely Belgian approach, placing emphasis on particular lines of strategy (for instance, university co-operation rather than support for basic education), with forms and content dictated primarily by the interests of the Belgian institutions. Despite its intrinsic high quality, this approach may well weaken the relevance, efficiency and effectiveness of Belgian ODA overall.

Results and performance

The reforms in the co-operation system established a special evaluator, outside the structure of DGCI in order to secure his independence. But there was no provision for any internal evaluation function within DGCI and CTB; as a result, the evaluation department that was part of the former AGCD studies and evaluation directorate was simply abolished. Yet a modern evaluation system should not be based exclusively on an independent unit. The lack of an internal evaluation unit makes it impossible to carry out any systematic monitoring and strategic control of the intermediate results of ongoing programmes and projects, including the extent to which they contribute to achieving international development objectives. The current evaluation system is too focused on the work of the special evaluator, who is invested with a formal power of appraisal which is not counterbalanced by more regular and systematic internal evaluation. Without corrective measures, it is highly likely that the objective of systematic dissemination of the results obtained and lessons learned, and appropriation of the evaluation by those in charge of projects and programmes, will not be achieved.


On the basis of these conclusions, the Development Assistance Committee recommends that Belgium should:

  • Pursue its efforts to consolidate the current reforms and ensure greater stability, continuity and institutional effectiveness in DGCI and CTB.
  • Maintain the principle of a separate budget for international co-operation within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
    Opt, in the event that the sharing of responsibility for Belgian aid is pursued, for a minimal approach ensuring that the federal administration retains the powers and resources, in co-operation matters, to secure consistency, effectiveness and impact in the field.
  • Take advantage of any improvement in the budget situation to continue to increase the volume of aid and bring it progressively towards the government target of 0.7% of GNP.
  • Reaffirm the statutory priority for poverty alleviation as a fundamental objective and prepare country strategies on the basis of the PRSP process and the sectoral approach.
  • Increase the proportion of assistance going to the priority countries and regions and continue to refocus its multilateral operations on a smaller number of international institutions.
  • Associate DGCI more closely in defining the positions that Belgium upholds in the governing bodies of the Bretton Woods institutions.
  • Prepare participatory country strategies in all the priority countries.
  • Make firmer use of the sectoral approach in implementing assistance.
  • Speed up the establishment of a new corporation for promoting investment in developing countries, BIO, and ensure that its regulations give due priority to the least developed countries (LLDCs), strengthening local institutional capacity and combating poverty.
  • Avoid dispersal of indirect co-operation and ensure that it is more fully in line with the priorities and poverty alleviation programmes defined by the partner countries.
  • Reform the system of evaluation so that DGCI and CTB develop a monitoring system and an internal assessment system whose findings can be taken into account.
  • Devote greater attention to achieving more consistency between co-operation policy and other policies that may have effects for developing countries.

This review is available in the DAC Journal. To order your copy, go to the OECD Online Bookstore.