Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Visegrád 4: An emerging development actor? An interview with Balázs Szent-Iványi

By Musab Younis

In the last decade the Visegrád Four countries (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) have emerged as development actors. I put some of questions surrounding the ascension of this small bloc in Central and Eastern Europe to Balázs Szent-Iványi, a researcher in the World Economy department at Cornivus University, Budapest, Hungary.

1. The Visegrád 4 (V4) countries have emerged in the last decade as new aid donors. What are their motives?

I think you could get different answers to this question depending on who you ask. I would definitely argue that the main motivation was external pressure. During the negotiations on their EU accession in the early 2000s, a more or less explicit requirement was voiced towards the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries that they must create their own development policies. I would not go so far, but many observers would even argue that these countries wouldn’t be doing development at all today without this pressure.

Of course, if you asked government officials, they would frame the whole thing differently. They would say things like being a member of the EU, one of the global economy’s most prosperous regions, comes with moral responsibilities. They would refer to lofty principles like solidarity, but also talk about the benefits their contribution brings to global peace, security, development and poverty reduction. It seems that politicians in the CEE countries have definitely learned to talk the talk of global development politics!

2. What does Central and Eastern European aid look like on the ground? What forms does it take?

Ten years on, CEE aid is still very much in its infancy. These countries typically spend 0.08-0.15% of their gross national incomes on aid, which is very far from e.g. the 0.7% that the UK plans to achieve next year. Aid is typically in the form of small stand alone projects, implemented by national NGOs. While there is no official data, the overwhelming majority of aid is tied. Project values of a few 10,000 dollars are not rare. Aid is mainly concentrated in the neighbouring countries, i.e. the Western Balkans and the Post-Soviet region. CEE aid is highly donor driven and relies to a large extent on technical assistance.

Fragmenting scarce resources on many tiny projects like this is of course not really an effective way of doing foreign aid. The CEE countries seem to be following the lead of the more established donors, at least in a sense that they also try to be present in a wide range of partners and sectors, but have much less resources to do it meaningfully. There is also a clear need for visibility. You get the impression that the CEE countries have no strategic idea of what to concentrate their efforts on. Also, the current financial has impacted many of these countries severely. Hungary’s bilateral aid budget for example has been reduced by as much as 70%. Diminishing resources make the need to prioritise and develop a more strategic approach even more pressing.

3. You have written that there is now a ‘unique’ Central and Eastern European development cooperation model, what is unique about it?

I wouldn’t call it a model, as a model sort of implies that it is something worth following for others. But I do agree that the CEE countries do represent a unique face of donorship, which I call “premature donorship”. CEE development policies have changed little in the past decade, with the possible exception of the Czech Republic. They seem to be stuck in this “low key” state without really moving forward. Essentially all of these countries are doing development policies with little domestic support for or even awareness of it. This is very different than doing development policy in the UK or Sweden, where there is clear social support for it and an active constituency. There is a clear perception among people in the CEE countries that they are poor and are in need of aid themselves. Due to this, politicians are reluctant to talk about foreign aid in fear of electoral backlash, and when they do, they frame it in a way to emphasize the immediate material benefits of giving aid for their countries, like increasing exports. Therefore, there is no political will to take development policy beyond the current set up, which you may argue is the bare minimum. The lack of social support and politic will for development implies that the CEE countries became aid donors before they were quite ready for it, thus the term premature donorship.

But there are positive sides to this ‘model’ as well. One of them has to do with the added value which the CEE countries bring to the donor community. CEE countries claim that they have amassed a large body of experience in reforming policies and institutions during their transition process, and would like to use this expertise in promoting democracy in their partners. Romania and Slovakia have been very active in assisting the democratic transition in Tunisia, the Czech Republic is supporting the opposition in places like Cuba and Myanmar, and Hungarian NGOs are active in helping the development of civil society in Serbia and Bosnia. Although it is not clear whether the experience of Slovakia has in privatisation for example, can be relevant in, say, Kazakhstan, it is clear that there is a need for knowledge on many transition issues in many developing countries, and the CEE donors are ready to provide this. Specialising more on transition experience and democracy promotion could be real niche for these new donors, especially since they could do democracy promotion in a much more credible way than large powers like the US.

4. How has EU integration of Central and Eastern European countries affected the way they view development cooperation?

Even though it was the EU who got these policies going in the first place, I don’t think it has been able to have much of an influence since then. If you look at official policy documents from the CEE countries, references to the EU or EU development legislation are very rare. Although the EU has a huge body of recommendations on what member states should do in order to increase the effectiveness of their development policies, the CEE countries have adopted very little of this (to be fair, a lot of the older member states aren’t doing too well in this either).

There are forces at play which may probably change this, however slowly. Being members of the EU has exposed these countries to a global dimension of policy making, and they may now feel that they have a say in shaping the EU’s external policies towards regions and countries with which they might not even have contacts with otherwise. The CEE countries should not think of themselves anymore as small or medium sized countries with only regional aspirations, but as members of a globally important community. With this global reach should come global responsibility as well, and thus should have an impact on development policies.

5. The V4 and Russia were once an aid-disbursing bloc, and after the instability of the 1990s they became, once again, aid donors at around the same time. How similar should we view the aid policies of the V4 and that of Russia? Is there any evidence of cooperation?

There are very few similarities between the V4 and Russia. The V4 countries are members of the EU and the OECD, and even though this had little actual impact on their development policies, they are very conscious about the fact that they do not want to be labelled ‘emerging donors’. Although Russia is probably one of the most ‘OECD-conform’ donors besides Turkey among the rising powers, I think that as it becomes more and more confident as a donor, it will gradually move away from the OECD and practices advocated by it. The V4 countries on the other hand are all members of the OECD and have made explicit signals that they aim to joint its Development Assistance Committee in the near future. Legacies of Communist-era development cooperation are also much stronger in Russia than they are among the V4.

There is hardly any cooperation among the V4 governments on development, save perhaps an informal mechanism to consult on development issues debated in the EU Council. There is absolutely no cooperation between the V4 and Russia, and I don’t think the V4 governments see Russia as a donor they could learn from or work with. V4 governments tend to look more towards donors like Sweden, Germany, Austria, the United States, or the UNDP, and while cooperation in the form of joint actions is still rather rare, there is an upward trend.

1 comment :

Andrew Cartwright said...

It’s true that V4 donors might prefer to work with former COMECON partners but that might make a lot of sense. During the socialist period, the V4 sponsored tens of thousands of vocational and professional courses in Prague, Budapest and Warsaw, and the ties that these created were instrumental in shaping many subsequent bilateral relations. Perhaps, it is not too surprising that half of Hungary’s current bilateral aid is spent on education. Balasz is right that there does not seem to be too much original strategy going on, but drawing on the social capital resources that come from investing in education could be a good place to start.