Working Paper
European aid to the MENA region after the Arab uprisings

A window of opportunity missed

European official development assistance to Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries increased sharply after 2011, ostensibly in support of the social, economic, and above all political changes demanded by the Arab uprisings.

The subsequent turn to development policies driven by security and anti-migration agendas, especially following the Syria refugee crisis in the autumn of 2015, raises the question whether initial expressions of support for democratic transformation expressed by European donors were ever backed by concrete measures.

This paper discusses this question with an exploratory review of the policy and practice dimensions of four European MENA aid programmes between 2011 and 2016. The policy dimension is explored via an analysis of available documents from the EU, France, Germany, and the UK.

The practice dimension is discussed with reference to OECD-DAC aid data on bilateral aid to MENA countries, focusing on aid in the social infrastructure and services sector, and in particular on the government and civil society sub-category.

Our analysis reveals that, while all donors promised to support democracy in MENA countries, none had a clear strategy for doing so via their development cooperation. At the practice level, while programmes and projects were aimed at supporting change in specific contexts, increases in aid were mostly unrelated to political change.

This indicates a preference for avoiding risks, which served to underpin the region’s political and socio-economic status quo. Accordingly, European donors missed an opportunity to test whether their aid could make a difference in supporting democratic transformation in the MENA.

The social, economic, and political tensions behind the Arab uprisings remain unresolved more than a decade on, meaning that there is likely a need to learn lessons from the period following 2011.