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Exploring the local in Brussels

Posted on 18/11/2016
By Vijay Krishnarayan

I step off the train feeling a little nervous. It’s my first time in Brussels since 23 June and I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve never been a regular visitor but the place is familiar and I’ve always felt comfortable. This time it’s different. I feel like a stranger coming to a new place. I’ve a nagging sense that I don’t really belong anymore. Myn and I are here to attend AidEx2016, an annual trade fair for the aid and development sector.

As we enter Hall 11 at the Expo site I hold the door open for a guy and he says “Cheers.” The Anglophone vibe is unmistakable. It seems I was wrong to feel unwelcome. Most of the exhibitors and delegates are from Northern Europe. I exchange nods with several of the Indian exhibitors who have brought new and affordable technology applying for example solar cells and bio-technology. There’s no question that the conference sessions would be conducted in anything other than English. You can see why the coffee queue discussions fix on the implications of the UK referendum for EU aid and development policy.

In my naivety I assume that the location is in some way related to the fact that the European Union is such a big player in the development sector. In 2013 EU aid was worth nearly 15 billion Euro or 9% of the institution’s overall budget. Asking around I find that in fact Brussels is a cheaper conference venue than London and that seasoned delegates feel that AidEx 2016, the sixth edition, is smaller this year.

For me as a newbie, the hall seems filled with exhibitors showcasing every possible kind of aid and development hardware. There are 150 stalls with delegates from 120 countries. It’s impressive. Event Director, Nicholas Rutherford explains the evolution of AidEx from trade fair to platform for debate and discussion on contemporary issues. The theme this year is “Localisation,” taking up the challenge of delivering the universal Sustainable Development Goals.

Jemilah Mahmood, friend of the Commonwealth Foundation and Under Secretary General at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies gave the opening address. Jemilah had previously spent time heading up the secretariat for the World Humanitarian Summit, which rehearsed many of the arguments in favour of local ownership. She starts by reminding us that localisation isn’t a term used by local people and that it’s taken the international community to make it “a thing.” She makes the case for localisation in the context of aid and development: it’s fast; has access; is aware of circumstance; and can be cost effective. On this last point she adds the caveat that localisation often comes at a heavy price when the lives of local volunteers and workers are lost in dangerous settings. What then are the appropriate roles for international agencies? Jemilah is clear – our job is not to sub-contract but rather to advocate and amplify voice, provide cover and enable local action.

We move into to other sessions: on aid architecture; capacity development and stakeholder partnerships. The Commonwealth Foundation isn’t a relief or humanitarian organisation so it’s interesting to get an insight into the challenges that this part of the development sector is facing. You get a sense that the World Humanitarian Summit provided a moment for discussion and agreement but that many of the issues persist. The issue of local agency is clearly top of the list and money talks. In 2015 the proportion of international assistance that found its way to local and national civil society organisations amounted to 0.4% of the whole. The “Grand Bargain” and the “Charter4Change” have started to broach the issue but increasing the flow of development funds to the global south is a topic that has many here at looking at their shoes or scratching their heads.

The discussion on how to finance aid and development when public purse strings in OECD countries draw ever tighter, continues. I still get slightly queasy at the thought of private sector involvement in development generally, and relief in particular, but understand the need. At AidEx2016 we hear how the Swedish Government works to encourage investment not only to fill the gaps but also to help innovate and bring new technology to the field. They recognise the importance of open and transparent procurement systems especially in multi-lateral institutions so that there is equal access and that best value is achieved. What is missing from this discussion is any reference to the local and informal economy and the ways in which it can be brought into the financing for development discourse.

If “localisation” means enabling the sharing of good practice on the ground so that it shapes national and international discourse as well as making global commitments into meaningful policy, then the Commonwealth Foundation is a subscriber. The draft strategic plan for the period 2017-2021, which will be discussed by our Board in December makes space in our programming for more of the work that we’re currently supporting in Cameroon and Tanzania. Here we are supporting civil society efforts to engage government counterparts, as they seek to align the SDG commitments with national development frameworks. It also encourages us to share the results coming in from grant funded local and national initiatives so that partners can review them and scale up where appropriate.

Myn and I get on the train back to London with half of the AidEx2016 delegates. I’m happy that we’ve looked in through this window on the humanitarian and relief community. We recognise many of the issues and challenges, but there are some new insights. For example, the session on the role media in covering aid brought to the surface concerns at the seeming need to find ever more heart rending means of countering the prevailing public scepticism about aid. Localisation and perhaps more pertinently the ownership of development has many manifestations.

Vijay Krishnarayan and Myn Garcia, director and deputy director of the Commonwealth Foundation, attended AidEx2016 in Brussels on 17 November 2016. Photo: ‘Brussel Noord’, courtesy of Luc Mercelis, Flickr CC.