OECD cites Flanders as one of best development partners in the world


A recent report on decentralised development co-operation uses Flanders as an example of how regions and municipalities can best make an impact on developing countries around the world

‘We get results’

The stabilisation of South Africa following the fall of apartheid. A food research institute in Malawi that provides crucial climate information to small farmers. Ensuring women access to birth control in Mozambique.

The world’s problems often seem too big to act upon. But what we often don’t see as individuals is the sheer volume of positive change that is taking place in the world due to development co-operation.

What we focus on in the media, including social media, is news, and news is mostly generated when things go wrong: conflict, disaster, disease. What we don’t see is the flip side, when varying levels of government, together with NGOs and other institutions, take action in the face of such problems. That’s not news, after all.

But a recent report released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) should have been news. In the report, the organisation analyses what’s known as Decentralised Development Co-operation (DDC), which is a fancy term to describe how municipal and regional governments (generally in developed countries) form partnerships with other regions or countries (generally developing ones). For the developed countries, this happens outside of any federal structures.

Case study: Flanders

Among the thousands of multi-level governments that make up the 34 member states of the OECD, Flanders was one of just four case studies included in the report. The OECD chose Flanders – along with the Basque Country, Tuscany and French municipalities – because of its immense success and its unique approach to DDC.

“The OECD and the European Commission decided to carry out this study mainly because they were worried about the financial crisis on the budgets of DDC actors,” explains Jorg Vereecke of the Flanders Department of Foreign Affairs.

It turns out it needn’t have worried. The crisis appears to have had little to no effect on development spending. Taking the period between 2005 and 2015 as a whole, local and regional communities spent 1% more on development co-operation than in the previous decade.

One of the reasons why Flanders is a best-practice example is that we have co-ordinated efforts to see where we can bring added value, in comparison with other countries

- Jorg Vereecke

Governments and other actors, such as universities and NGOs, largely embark on co-operations to help fulfil global goals. Currently that means the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set in 2015.

Flanders concentrates its work on three sectors – health care, agriculture and food security – all important areas in reaching the development goals. Rather than spreading itself too thin, the region focuses on three countries: South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique.

“We have always strongly defended the idea of concentration on a specific region,” says Vereecke. “That way, we get more results.”

The same holds true for sectors, he says. “One of the main reasons why Flanders is considered as a best-practice example is that we have developed what we call ‘country strategy papers’. These are a co-ordinated efforts to see where we can bring an added value, in comparison with other countries.”

More than money

This means that efforts among developed countries will not be duplicated. “So usually the choice for a particular sector is made together with the partner government looking at the capacity of what we have here in Flanders.”

What Flanders has is an excellent health-care system and advanced agricultural and food production techniques. So this is what it ships to Southern Africa.

Mozambique, for instance, has been hit hard by Aids. In 2014, 1.5 million people were infected with the HIV virus. Funding and expertise was provided to train health-care workers across the country in sexual health and prevention. The Institute for Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, meanwhile, has collaborated with Mozambique’s National Institute of Health on antibiotic resistance, a serious problems in the country due to overprescribing antibiotics.

Flanders is one of the most active regional governments globally in DDC … its co-operation budget increases at a constant rate

- OECD report ‘Reshaping Decentralised Development Co-operation’

In Malawi, Flanders co-operated on the foundation of an agricultural training centre in Lisasadzi to promote sustainable agricultural techniques and of Farm Radio Trust, which broadcasts advice to small farmers on issues such as harvest management and weathering passing storms.

What also attracted the OECD to Flanders, though, was its knock-on effect. A total of 308 municipalities in Flanders has, at one point or another, been involved in DDC. This figure will jump out to some readers: It’s the total number of municipalities that exist in Flanders.

It’s a remarkable feature that was not lost on the OECD when choosing case studies for its report. Not only has every municipality been involved with a city, town or region somewhere else in the world, currently 75% of Flemish municipalities have a city councillor and a budget dedicated to DDC.

Think global, act local

“One of the conclusions of the OECD was that one of Flanders’ strengths is the level of municipalities active in development co-operation,” says Vereecke. “This results in a very strong awareness in our cities about the Sustainable Development Goals. And certainly compared to other countries, where local level authorities are much less aware of the urgency of reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.”

While city councils can also work in Flanders’ official partner countries or in the official sectors, they don’t have to. Recently, city representatives in Flanders met with OECD officials to present some of their projects. While Ghent, for example, launched Ghent Fair Trade with townships in South Africa to address the deplorable situation in the textile industry, Mol works with Niger’s Karkara commune on health care and education, and Zoersel works on local government practices in Bohicon, Benin.

These co-operations, however, are less one-sided than they seem. In the case of Flanders, best practices are exchanged, with Flemish farmers, for instance, learning agricultural practices from Malawi and South African farmers.

The OECD had several recommendations based on the report, largely gleaned from the best practices of its four case studies: Use DDC to improve local and regional planning in both donor and partner countries, co-ordinate across levels of government to improve effectiveness, improve reporting on aid extended, promote results-oriented monitoring and evaluation.

Photo top: Flemish minister-president Geert Bourgeois visits local authoritie's in Kasungu, Malawi
Photo above: Personnel at Hospital Rural do Songo in Tete, Mozambique. The hospital is supported by the Human Resources for Health programme, co-financed by Flanders

Photos courtesy FDFA