Joint Programming – the Long Path towards Better European Development Funding Cooperation

EU Joint Programming aims at closer cooperation in development policies and European donor countries. The decentralised and flexible approach is showing initial signs of success.

Although closer cooperation in development policies between the European donor countries has been an old item on the to-do list of the European Union, getting there has proven difficult. In recent years, the initiative of ‘Joint Programming’, pushed forward by the Commission and EEAS may slowly achieve this goal in a way that may appear rather ‘un-EU’ like.
Coordination of bilateral development policies and budgets of the European donor countries has been very rudimentary for a long time. While in most of the cases there was no coordination at all, in ad-hoc cases the donor countries realised the necessity to come together and have a more coordinated approach. The amount of development money which has been invested can hardly be justified considering the current situation in many of the affected states. The situation in the development funding area was characterised by a high fragmentation, ignorance of other countries strategies or priorities and unbalance between the funding of different sectors.

A common phenomenon was the over-funding of ‘attractive’ sectors such as education or water supply and, subsequently, underfunding of less prestigious sectors such as sanitary or transport. Because these problems seriously limited the effectiveness of European development aid, the topic became part of the European agenda. Starting point for this was the institutionalisation of the common foreign and security policy in the Maastricht Treaty 1992, which formulates the desire to coordinate bilateral development policies of Member States (MS) without a policy mandate. Following up on the Treaty, in 2000 a ‘Development policy of the European Community’ is formulated through a statement of Council & Commission which ‘sets out a clear and coherent strategy for the European Community's development cooperation policy with a view to maximising the Community value-added in this area, improving the quality and impact of its actions and responding to the new global challenges’. In 2007 the ‘European Consensus for Development’ puts forward a voluntary code of conduct for EU donors. The aim is to ‘reduce the administrative formalities, to use the funds where they are most needed, to pool aid and to share the work to deliver more, better and faster aid’. It departs from the observation that ‘donors frequently concentrate on the same countries and the same sectors. This leads to a significant administrative burden and high transaction costs in the beneficiary countries, diffuses policy dialogue, reduces transparency and increases the risk of corruption. Some countries, on the other hand, are almost ignored by donors’.

Institutional pressures and the coining of a new term

In the last decade development effectiveness has moved to the top of the political agenda again. Especially in light of increased migratory flows towards Europe, which originate in countries, where European states have delivered development assistance, the effectiveness is questioned. Nevertheless, a more structured cooperation only started to develop after the Busan Forum on Aid Effectiveness (2011) from which originated the ‘Agenda for Change’ in 2012. Experts working in this area confirmed that sceptical Member States only jumped on board after it became clear that the EU was doing ‘serious business’ this time round (Interview, GIZ Representation Brussels, May 2016). The term ‘Joint Programming’ was coined to define the ways and the aims of cooperation. This important step was supported by adaptations in the personal structure of the Commission and the respective ministries of Germany and France. By investing more personal into pushing this initiative forward more states could be convinced to buy into the process.

The rationale behind this is easy: a more coordinated strategy will avoid overlapping or even contradictory actions and allow the use of synergies as well as the reduction of transaction costs. In 2015 the EU published a guidance pack in which Joint Programming is defined: ‘Joint programming means the joint planning of development cooperation by the EU development partners working in a partner country. It includes a joint analysis of the country situation followed by a joint response setting out how EU development partners will provide support and measure progress.’

Hence EU donors shall ‘jointly determine a development response strategy for a particular partner country and draft a joint country strategy document, ideally to be used in lieu of bilateral country strategies. The process also involves decisions on ‘who does what’ through a division of labour of sectors among donors which takes into account the EU donors’ commitments to concentrate their aid in a maximum of three sectors in each developing country they choose to support’ (ECDPM Report, 2015). The Commission published a guidance pack in 2014, which states that ‘Joint programming means the joint planning of development cooperation by the EU development partners working in a partner country. It includes a joint analysis of the country situation followed by a joint response setting out how EU development partners will provide support and measure progress’ (EC, 2014). In this process, the partner country shall play a central role and contribute to the development plan. In any case it must be coordinated accordingly to the country´s own plan for development.  

The motivations to join this joint exercise are manifold. While the European Union institutions certainly follow some reasoning in lines of development effectiveness, a major driving force is to increase visibility through having one shared strategy and to demonstrate the capability to coordinate European efforts on the international stage. Participating Member States may not be driven by the aim to show European unity, instead may fear to lose visibility themselves. On the Member State level, less idealistic motivations which assume cost-benefit calculations have to be emphasised in order to make the Member States participate. Aid effectiveness, which in this context is defined as reaching the same goals while contributing fewer resources, is the leading motivation for most Member States who also hope to even decrease financial input, while the effects of coordinated action may remain equal or even be increased. Hence, Member States will only take part in the Joint Programming process, if they are convinced that a material win will emerge for them from the process. A policy greatly driven by the UK, which is most vocal to only support Joint Programming where future smaller contributions to development aid can be expected. The difference of motivational backgrounds however, do not seem to play a limiting role. Especially because also the Member States come from different backgrounds and starting points. While bigger Member States hope to be able to economise their development budgets, smaller Member States wish to receive more international visibility and to receive a seat at the negotiation table. It is then the job of the EEAS to bring together the motivation of different countries.


Because of these different interests and the situation in each developing country, the EU institutions have to approach Joint Programming with a high degree of flexibility. Concerning the situation in the partner country, there are big differences in a lot of aspects. Firstly, the number of EU Member States active in the development field in the country differs. Certainly it makes a difference in the planning process, whether only a few European states assist the partner country or whether almost all Member States are present. Secondly, there is great divergence in the development stages of the partner countries which must be taken into account. This applies also to the partner countries’ capabilities to take part and contribute to planning processes. Some have a well elaborated plan for themselves and the institutional capabilities to influence the international processes, while others have fewer capabilities to take part in international planning processes. Because Joint Programming aims to include the partner country in the process of formulating a common strategy, the level of institutional capabilities of the country to formulate coordinated strategies must be reflected in a European-lead Joint Programming. Thirdly, this process depends on the political will of all participants to go forward in a coordinated way. Therefore, different political preferences – be it in the European donor country or the developing country – exert a substantial influence on the common action. This is another factor, which increases the need for a flexible approach.

The approach which was developed is therefore characterised by extraordinary high flexibility. Most importantly it is driven in a decentralised fashion by the EU delegations in the developing countries. Although the Joint Programming process was initiated in 2011, only from this year on the participating partners know what elements a document needs to contain in order to call it ‘Joint Programming’, being those basic elements mentioned above. This shows that until now the whole process has been widely undefined and still even after publishing the guidance pack is very imprecisely and only loosely guided by the EU delegations. This certainly implicates a number of problems. States which are supposed to participate have interpreted the idea differently and have thus departed with confusing expectations. It remained unclear how the process would be led and what the outcome might be. Although this has drawn criticism from a number of actors, it has also some positive effects.

By leaving Joint Programming widely undefined it was able to combine many different motivations and interpretations. In this way the highest possible number of Member States is able to join on their own terms and in accordance with the Joint Programming’s voluntary principle.  Thus, every Member State may at any time remain outside the negotiation. If neither a Member State nor the developing country shows interest in Joint Programming or even opposes a more coordinated effort, it is at discretion of the EU delegation to stop any such process and to report that there are no adequate conditions to move forward with it. The European Commission emphasises that there is no compulsion to pursue Joint Programming where it is unwanted.
Nevertheless, the European delegations are mandated to initiate Joint Programming as long as there are three partners (EU delegation and at least two Member States) on the table. In this way the process can also be started with only a handful of states while leaving out others. In reality however, this is not happening, as there is a kind of de facto consensus, which makes it difficult for EU delegations to exclude any state from the negotiations. It is clearly preferred to move forward in a rather slow and careful process while including all Member States. But these principles of flexibility and voluntariness allow Member States to join when they are ready. For practitioners in the field, the benefits of flexibility outweigh the disadvantages of having an undefined slow process. In the Commission the opinion seems to prevail that although the institutions have a clear tendency towards centralisation of processes, they sometimes realise that people on the ground may function even better where there are no clear instructions determined in Brussels. This notion was confirmed by one Official from the Commission: ‘If you have willing people on the ground, they will find a way’. (Interview, DG DEVCO, June 2016). These open principles are emphasised in the Council of the European Union meeting of May 2016: ‘Joint Programming should be promoted and strengthened, while being kept voluntary, flexible, inclusive, and tailored to the country context, and allow for the replacement of EU and Member States Programming documents with EU Joint Programming documents. In countries where Joint Programming has yet to start, the Council calls on the Commission services and the EEAS to assess the potential with Member States missions for Joint Programming and for developing a roadmap’.

Away from a Eurocentric exercise

It is widely accepted that ownership is needed to run a sustainable coordination process. Local ownership, which means that the partner country leads and supports the coordination process, would be the ideal outcome but is unlikely to achieve in practice. After all, the partner country occupies a central role as the receiver of the development aid. At this point Join Programming regularly faces a lack of involvement of the respective partner country which leads to the impression that having the partner country on board is a ‘lucky strike’. The involvement of the partner state is one of the key principles of Joint Programming but the governments of developing countries often approach it very critically and tacitly. On the European side it is assumed that by coordinating between the European donors, the transaction costs will move to the EU countries and there will be less coordination efforts for the partner country. However some governments fear that they might lose capacity to influence the agenda when facing the European countries as a block. If the EU countries anticipate coordination and come to an agreement on a common strategy, it may become tougher for a developing country to negotiate – a fear that contains some truth as some experts admit. Although the partner country should take part in Joint Programming, the fear of having a weaker mandate facing a block of EU Member States keeps some governments from supporting the process, which in turn may lead to the European countries anticipating coordination and confronting the partner state with an EU block. From the developing country´s perspective, increased European coordination may lead to a decrease of total European development aid. Despite of appeals from the EU institutions to the partner countries, it is one of the motivations for EU Member States to scale down total development aid commitments. The so called ‘donor shopping’ tactic which some developing states pursue by negotiating the maximum of development aid from each donor partner will become more difficult – an evolution that European countries are hoping to achieve. It is also common that the developing country´s government fails to fully understand Joint Programming and its purpose or does not see consider it remotely as a priority. The wish for more European coordination is not recognised around the globe and it remains a rather Eurocentric idea and a new approach is not necessarily welcomed as something good.

EU soft skills

Foreign and development policy are traditionally very sensitive issues as they touch the sovereignty of a country, which is why the European institutions have to rely on their soft skills in this context. To reorganise the partnership of two countries in a more group-oriented manner is almost revolutionary and has to be done by small steps and with the constant agreement of all parties. There are no means to pursue Joint Programming in a stricter and compulsory way. Therefore the only way forward is to persuade and to convince all actors of the added value of cooperation. This is mainly the task of the EEAS which facilitates the communication and leads the coordination process through the EU delegations. Joint Programming processes are running in 55 countries and the majority of the participants recognise the benefits in the longer term, although in the short term coordination always increases transaction costs. It should be recalled that the process is solely based on the conviction and constant commitment of the participating states. The momentum which comes with the initiative of the EEAS and a few Member States can however make more hesitant governments participate in the process through the bandwagon effect, as states prefer to go along instead of being isolated in such processes. The European Union in the case of Joint Programming thus plays the role of the facilitator and communicator, which convinces Member States to come together in a sensitive policy area where all recognise the need for cooperation. Although the decentralised and flexible manner of cooperation appears rather non-European at first sight it has shown to be a useful way in order to facilitate Joint Programming for development policy.