The French international aid system has long been marked by Frances historic relations with its former colonies and with the wider French-speaking world. This led to the development of a complex two-structured system:
- The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which managed general diplomacy, multi- and bi-lateral relationships as well as assistance to Asia, America and Western, Eastern and Central Europe (the so-called hors-champ countries);
- The Ministry of Development Cooperation, responsible for assistance to a grouping of most of the former colonies, essentially West and Central Africa, as well as North Africa and some of the Caribbean islands (the so-called du-champ countries).
Alongside these two structures was the French Development Bank (Caisse Française de Développement) co-directed by the Ministry of Development Cooperation and the Treasury. This managed all official loans through bilateral and occasionally multilateral channels. In addition there was a complex mechanism to mobilise resources for emergency response set up by the Department of Humanitarian Action (Service dAction Humanitaire) within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as an Emergency Unit (Cellule dUrgence) an inter-ministerial body including the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Health. The resources available to the DHA were always fairly limited and diminished gradually over the years, with France believing that funding through ECHO would be the key to financing emergency assistance.
The relationship with NGOs was based on different mechanisms. The Department of Volunatary Associations and Decentralised Cooperation (Dpt de la Vie Associative et de la Coopération Decentralisée, DEV/IVA) constituted for both ministries a mechanism for co-funding.
The Commission for Cooperation and Development (Commission Coopération-Développment; CCD) offered a forum for dialogue. Management of food aid fell under a complex inter-ministerial administrative machinery involving the Ministry of Agriculture, Foreign Affairs, and the Treasury etc. Finally, there was the more political structure of the NGO-Liaision Unit (Mission de Liaison auprès des ONG; MILONG).
On the ground this two-tiered structure for the du-champ countries replicated itself within the French Embassy on the one hand (with its consular and political departments) and the Mission for Aid and Development on the other, which, in certain countries, had considerable control and influence.
Initial steps towards reforming this two-tiered system began in 1981 under the then minister of development cooperation, M Jean-Pierre Cots. Sustained lobbying from various sources (African as well as French) quickly put a stop to the process. However, it was reintroduced in 1997 following the annual meeting of International Development and Solidarity, the reforms were finally implemented at the beginning of 1999. The reforms are characterised by:
- The strengthening of the inter-ministerial aspects of aid by creating the Inter-ministerial Committee on International Cooperation for Development.
- The merging of the two ministries into one body. This should allow the imbalance in development strategies for Latin and Central America, Eastern and Southern Africa and certain Asian regions to be redressed. In addition, at field level the regional offices for aid and development (Les Missions dAide et de Coopération; MAC) have seen their status profoundly modified: under the newly created Department for Cultural Cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance (Service de Coopération Culturelle et dAide Humanitaire) the erstwhile MAC is now totally integrated into the embassies with the head of each field office becoming an Assistant Ambassador.
- The definition of so-called priority zones in which the French administration will concentrate its bilateral support in the knowledge that other regions will be assisted via multi-lateral, notably European, mechanisms.
- In the medium term the abolition of the DHA, whose assets were limited anyway, and the strengthening of the Emergency Unit. This should reinforce the coherence of French humanitarian action.
- A new mandate for the former French Development Bank, renamed the French Development Agency (FDA) which has been widened to include social development, education and health. This measure, introduced following the integration in 1995 of the former Indochina into the traditional areas of intervention, makes the FDA the operational centre of the French aid administration. However, the dual supervision of the FDA by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Treasury inevitably means there will be need for considerable mediation. Also, given that the FDA will keep its status as a bank certain decisions will be difficult to make: for example, the cancellation or rescheduling of debt repayments, grant making, involvement in unprofitable schemes, relationships with non-creditworthy countries and relationships with all countries that are affected by crises, be they natural or conflict.
- The creation of a body for civil society consultation, the High Council of Development Cooperation. This High Council, under the supervision of the prime minister and composed of a number of interest groups (NGOs, unions, grass-roots organisations and individuals) will be granted powers of inquiry.
The NGOs, or rather, the OSIs (Organisations of International Solidarity, according to current French terminology) have followed this reform with interest and have attempted to make proposals to the Commission of Cooperation and Development, either via their collective organisational structure, Coordination SUD, or through other working groups and networks such as Groupe URD.
One of the difficulties was finding a forum in which effective debate and consultation could take place. Not suprisingly the other issue was financial: what level of funding would be available to OSIs? What would be the funding framework under which OSIs could make bids? Who would be responsible for emergency operations, and what political, technical and financial mechanisms would be in place to cover the grey area between relief and development.
The new structure has only recently been introduced and is still in its early days. It is therefore too soon to judge its performance in relation to the new post-Cold War agenda. The OSIs, in any case, will remain vigilant and will try to maintain, collectively via their structures for representation, reflection and operational research, a critical but constructive approach.