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Interview with Simon Maxwell: “Stopping migration through development is a myth” 0

Brussels – “I do think that it is a myth to believe that if only there were more development in the countries that are sending migrants to Europe, then the migration would stop”, says the former Director of the Overseas Development Institute (1997-2009), Simon Maxwell, in this interview released to Afronline during the European Development Days. “In the modern world, people move to seek a better life”.

With the migration crisis increasing in scope in Europe, there is a worry that EU aid may be under threat and that the budgets of the Member States are being redirected towards hosting refugees or managing security challenges. What is your opinion on this?

The migration crisis is causing great disruptions in the development sector. Many European countries are now spending 20% of their total development budget on housing refugees for just the first year. This is permitted under OECD rules, but obviously, it means that money is being diverted from other potential uses. In some cases, well over 20% of the budget is being spent on first-year refugee costs. Even apart from this, we have seen how the general crisis in the Middle East and North Africa has sucked away money for humanitarian purposes, which could have been put to different use.

We face what looks likely to be a medium- to long-term humanitarian and budgetary crisis.

The EU talks about migration a great deal. I do think that it is a myth to believe that if only there were more development in the countries that are sending migrants to Europe, then the migration would stop. In the modern world, people move to seek a better life. Sometimes the more educated they are and the more resources they have, the more likely they are to move. There is no way in which you can reduce the pressure for migration simply by spending money on development projects in the sending countries. We do need to do that, but by managing expectation and migration in a more comprehensive way.

We need a highly coherent response to the refugee crisis; we also need to make sure that we respect international humanitarian law, provide adequate support to refugees in the camps, and ensure legal routes and investment in refugee resettlement according to the rules of UNHCR, and we have to rebuild the territories where conflict has taken place, chiefly because of the impact on the many millions of people involved.

The Middle East is the most visible of these crises, but there are many others – including refugees in Kenyan camps threatened with closure, who will become displaced.

Does this mean that the EU is managing the migration crisis in the wrong way? Is the EU Trust Fund for Africa an inadequate tool for tackling this sort of crisis?

It is certainly one of the tools you would want in your toolbox, but in the longer term we will need to look very carefully at migration partnerships and legal routes for short-term employment, making it possible to send remittances more cheaply, and, last but not least, start building business relationships between African and European countries.

We live in a globalized world and we need to make sure we have the policies to deal with global challenges.

From your point of view, is there any European government that has a coherent policy on migration?

This may be a controversial view, but I believe that it is legitimate for countries to say that migration into their countries should be controlled. I don’t feel happy when I see large uncontrolled flows of people, with a mixture of refugees and economic migrants. For example, this has been used as an argument in the UK’s referendum on EU membership by supporters of Brexit. People are naturally concerned when facing a loss of order in the handling of migration.

Has Europe done a good job in handling the refugee crisis? Of course it hasn’t. We have failed to deal with uncontrolled flows of people coming to the borders, with different rules being applied by different countries and inconsistent handling of resettlement. It is up to Europe to make sure that people do not feel that the only way to escape a terrible situation is to risk their lives crossing the sea and to make a long trek across unfriendly countries until they reach sanctuary.

Sanctuary is an important word and concept, and we need to ensure that it is offered to the right people at the right time.

What needs to change in development cooperation?

We have to deal with a new aid context, where the majority goes to fragile states with very different conditions to those we are used to. It is not about building more health centers in Tanzania or in Malawi, which are relatively stable and peaceful countries, but rather dealing with the complex political problems in places like Somalia, South Sudan or the Sahel region. This is part one of the new agenda.

Part two is about the global challenges we face. Climate change, for example, requires collective action in the North and the South on a global scale, which is why the Paris Accord was an important first step.

Clearly, when you are dealing with those kinds of questions, and others, such as disease, terrorism, crime and drugs, multilateralism is part of the solution. You cannot deal with such issues one country at a time. This is where the EU brings some specific advantages. As we saw in Paris, when 28 countries speak together and form alliances (as was the case with the ACP), they are able to exercise considerable influence with a highly ambitious outcome. If we do not solve these big global problems, they will come back to bite us. They will drive more migration, more external problems and pressures on our societies.

The UK government has been accused by Labour MP and Shadow International Development Secretary, Diane Abbot, of “hijacking” the aid budget to bankroll big businesses and security initiatives. Do you share these concerns?

I don’t want to take party political positions, but it is clear that the whole aid endeavor in the UK has become very controversial. This is partly because a number of popular newspapers have campaigned against 0.7, and they have concentrated less on the issue you mentioned and more on corruption, misuse and waste of money.

The government published a new aid policy in November 2015, focusing more on global problems and ‘re-focusing’ on fragile and conflict-affected states. It is clear that we need to invest differently in fragile states. The government has created a cross-government security fund, which enables them to support other kinds of non-traditional activities, such as military action.

We are always bound by the rules of the OECD, which are very clear on the fact that you cannot fund the military with aid programs or fund arms purchases or the police force.

However, there are some things you can fund with regard to security sector reform: for example, you can now fund human rights training for soldiers out of the aid budget.

It is very important for the level of spending and the purposes of spending on aid in the UK to be protected by legislation. The idea that we are going to use the aid budget to fund aircraft carriers or planes to bomb Syria is simply not correct, and not allowed under the aid program. We have to be careful, because when you start spending on the military it becomes very expensive very quickly.

There is nothing more important to poverty reduction than peace. Peace is a necessary condition for development, so it is entirely legitimate for the government to spend on security related issues, but according to the OECD rules. As I have said, we will not be funding aircraft carriers, but rather things that can help countries on that very difficult transition from war to peace and development.

What are the key geographical priorities for the UK aid today?

There are currently 28 ‘priority recipient’ countries located across the world. The government will soon publish a new list of priority countries. We have reduced aid to countries like India and South Africa, and there will be now more aid to fragile states. Since the original list was published, a lot of humanitarian aid and some other aid is now being sucked into crisis areas in the Middle East and North Africa, so I expect to see those countries reflected.

As a result there will be less aid to middle income countries, such as Latin America for example. I do think that it is important that not every donor country should be active in every recipient country. It is good to specialize a little.

That’s why Member States such as the UK need the EU?

Yes, we don’t have a large presence in the Sahel for example, but the EU does, so it is good for us to work together with them to our advantage.

By Joshua Massarenti (

Edited by Kimberley Evans

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