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Jean Van Wetter : “We wanted to revolutionize the way we look at international cooperation”

In 2018, the Belgian Technical Cooperation (BTC) became Enabel. A name change to mark a new approach to official development assistance. Meet its Director General, Jean Van Wetter, who talks in detail about the approach that now guides Belgian cooperation.

What is your background? What led you to take over the management of Enabel?

After studying management engineering in Belgium, I started my career as a management and strategy consultant. In this capacity, I worked for a number of companies, including the French group Engie. I then moved into international cooperation, joining Handicap International to follow my wife to Cambodia. After several years working for NGOs in China and Tanzania, among other places, I was recruited through an executive search firm to become Director General of Enabel.

I arrived at a time when the Belgian cooperation agency was changing its name. The Belgian Technical Cooperation (BTC) was renamed following a reform aimed at renewing its objectives, moving away from ‘classic’ cooperation and becoming a changemaker. Enabel is inspired by the English word “enable”, which means “to make possible”. When I arrived, the idea was to make better use of Belgian expertise as a whole, to make available to our partners what Belgium is famous for, by creating a hub of public expertise. I started by developing a new ten-year strategy and proposing a change of approach. We wanted to revolutionize the way we look at international cooperation. It’s no longer about charity, it’s about fostering partnerships.

What is Enabel’s new approach in Africa?

“Recognized expertise, local roots and adaptability” – that’s how Enabel defines its approach @Enabel

Rich countries spend on average 0.5% of their gross national income (GNI) on official development assistance (ODA). The target should be 0.7%. Financial solidarity is an important concept, but we need to think about it differently. We need to move from a logic of aid to one of investment. Instead of systematically helping the poorest countries, we need to build cooperation around common challenges. The challenges we have identified are peace and security, climate change, social and economic inequalities, human mobility and urbanization. These are our five areas of work.

Your roadmap is based on these 5 priorities. What are your priorities and objectives?

With regard to the first priority, Belgium has chosen to work on the most fragile countries and in this context we cannot deny that security is a prerequisite for development and vice versa. The same goes for the second area, climate change and the environment. We face common challenges on a global scale. Sustainable agriculture, energy and water management were already part of the Enabel agenda, and we have brought them together under a single theme.

Our third priority, tackling social and economic inequalities, is a traditional area of work for a development agency. But our new approach is to work at the local level, proposing projects that integrate the entire value chain. In the energy sector, for example, we are working on a green hydrogen project for use in industrialization, not just for export. That wouldn’t be right. We’re still working on aspects of the project, but it involves developing skills and a local network of companies. The aim is to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have the capacity to respond to tenders from international companies.

If a company invests in Namibia to produce green hydrogen, it will most likely deal with South African companies. If we want local companies to enter the market, we need to prepare them in terms of regulations and skills. We’re not doing that yet, but the logic is to work on training issues in conjunction with investment projects. As an agency, this means being aware of potential funding and even, to some extent, attracting it. It’s a real paradigm shift. We have to stop looking at the private sector as a separate sector and start seeing it as a contributor and a player in development. If we support them, we can maximize the impact of our projects.

Urbanization can be a real opportunity

Our fourth focus area, migration, includes some rather innovative entrepreneurial mobility projects. For example, entrepreneurs from Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire are selected to come to Belgium. For six months, we bring them together with Belgian entrepreneurs as part of a mobility program. The entrepreneurs develop projects together and then set them up in Senegal or Côte d’Ivoire, or even in Belgium. We have a few examples. For a pilot project, we put a Senegalese company working in water distribution in touch with a Belgian company developing filtration systems. They are now working together. These are just pilot projects. We need to expand them to show that mobility is beneficial in both directions.

The final area is urbanization, a response to demographic growth. Africa is projected to be home to 4 billion people by 2100. I used to live in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and I saw how small towns started to grow, then joined together to become megacities. How can we anticipate this? How can we prepare? How do you do urban planning? If we answer these questions, urbanization can be a real opportunity. There is still time to improve social services in the city and to think about life in tomorrow’s society.

Ultimately, with the exception of urbanization specific to Africa, the issues we are working on are common challenges for the whole planet. This shapes the way we work with our partners. Our approach is characterized by three things: recognized expertise, local roots and adaptability. In other words, we don’t come up with an ad hoc solution, we adapt to the needs.

It makes no sense for a country to play the cooperation card with Africa on its own

Do you work with other agencies on specific projects?

Enabel is stepping up its partnerships with other development agencies @Enabel

We are increasingly working in consortia with the French Development Agency (AFD), the German Development Agency (GIZ) and USAID. The idea is to develop a joint offer. Then there are partnerships with African actors, such as the Digital for Development (D4D) Hub platform, which brings together the European Union, its member states and their African partners. Another example is the MAV+ project, which aims to promote the production of and access to vaccines, medicines and health technologies in Africa, and in which the African Union is a partner. As Enabel is based in Brussels, we play a central role by offering to host the secretariat for this project. We also have the VET Toolbox, a joint offering from six European agencies, funded by the European Union, which focuses on vocational education and training. There is sometimes a risk of European cooperation taking place without African partners. We must not be too Eurocentric, but involve African institutions such as the African Union, start from our common interests and build real partnerships.

Is working in a consortium part of this new approach?

It makes sense. European countries need to show a little humility. Europe’s population is declining, as is its productivity. But Africa’s can only go up. The balance of power is clearly shifting. And for the better. So it makes no sense for any one country to play the cooperation card with Africa on its own. We have to focus on the relationship between Europe and Africa. That seems obvious to me. A single country doesn’t have all the expertise; it has to be able to mobilize it elsewhere.

The Global Gateway strategy, which aims to raise funding, brings together the European Union, its member states and their financial and development institutions. Although it has been criticized for focusing too much on infrastructure, Global Gateway has the merit of bringing governments together and mobilizing the private sector. The private sector still lacks interest in Africa, which is perceived as a risky continent. Global Gateway is an interesting strategy because it provides the guarantees needed to attract investment, which is still insufficient.

There is a financing gap for the African private sector

Enabel has made the promotion of the African private sector a priority. What does that mean?

Enabel has put support for African SMEs at the heart of its strategy @Enabel

We have a very clear strategy to support African SMEs. We provide one-to-one coaching and support. We do this in a number of countries, including Guinea and Burkina Faso. We also look at the whole global value chain for a given product when developing a local private sector. In Benin, for example, we are working on pineapples as part of the global pineapple market. The same applies to cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire. We are involved in an initiative called Beyond Chocolate. Belgium is the world’s leading producer of chocolate. The aim of this program is to produce responsible chocolate that provides a fair income for producers, while combating deforestation. We are trying to target sectors where Belgium has expertise.

There is also a gap in the financing of the African private sector. Microfinance focuses on small players in the informal economy; public development finance institutions such as BIO Invest or Proparco invest in companies, but the entry ticket is sometimes too high. There is currently no link between supply and demand for small structures that are unknown to the networks.

How do you fill that gap?

It’s a question of support. We work with local authorities to improve their regulations and business climate, and to encourage startups. We support governments in their ability to attract investment. That’s what’s missing. We are in the process of signing agreements with social impact funds that will take family money and invest it in an African company, rather than giving it to an NGO. In the end, the problem is not the money, but the misallocation of it. Africa has incredible potential: its youth. Just look at how Africans are embracing artificial intelligence (AI), which is new to everyone, including us Europeans. So I’m very optimistic about the future of the continent.

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