EU rebukes African, Caribbean, Pacific org ‘not aligned with reality’

(L-R) OACPS Secretary General Georges Chikoti and EU Ambassador to the Pacific Barbara Plinkert (Photo: Nic Maclellan)

The European Commission is privately threatening to stop propping up the 79-member Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States amid concerns of financial mismanagement, just months after signing a new 20-year partnership with the group.

In a March 13 letter to OACPS Secretary-General Georges Chikoti, seen by Devex, Koen Doens, the director-general of the commission’s department for international partnerships, wrote that the commission would honour its “political commitment” to contribute to the operating cost of the OACPS’ Brussels-based secretariat of roughly 50 staff, but only if the group presented cost-cutting plans to redress its “critical and fragile” financial situation by the end of March 2024.

“[As] Authorising Officer for the EU budget managed by DG INTPA [the commission’s development department], it is my responsibility to protect the financial interests of the European Union and to put in place all the necessary controls to ensure that public money is spent in full respect of the EU’s financial regulation,” Doens wrote.

“Despite repeated requests (orally and in writing) for transparency on the current financial situation of the OACPS Secretariat and its viability in the short to medium term, we still lack vital information.”

Doens wrote that until the commission had all the assurances it required, no more EU funding would be signed or disbursed for the secretariat.

Asked if OACPS had met the March 31 deadline, a commission spokesperson told Devex that “we do not comment on leaks.” OACPS did not respond to a request for comment.

Without EU support the 49-year-old organisation would face collapse, amid ongoing struggles to get member countries to pay their annual contributions.

Closing time?

Having overcome doubts from the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron about the need for a new EU-OACPS partnership agreement — eventually signed in Samoa in November 2023 — Doens’ letter is the clearest sign yet that the commission itself is now losing patience with a group that was once an important pillar in the European Union’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Founded in the 1970s as a way to coordinate aid and trade between the European Economic Community and former colonies, OACPS has been superseded in recent years by bespoke relationships between the commission and specific countries, as well as the African Union. That has left the group’s secretariat in Brussels with little to do besides organize sparsely attended, EU-funded meetings between European ministers and members of the European Parliament and their counterparts in African, Caribbean, and Pacific nations.

A 2021 study for the commission, obtained by Devex under an access to information request, found that “it is complicated to really grasp what the Secretariat is concretely achieving and what is its impact.” And in June 2023, the secretariat itself noted in an internal document that OACPS “does not have a development cooperation framework which should provide guidance on its strategic policy objectives to be pursued in its development cooperation with its partners including the European Union.”

EU officials in Brussels have long argued that despite its flaws, it is important to maintain the EU-OACPS relationship because it could help forge voting blocs at places like the United Nations. Yet, Amandine Sabourin, a policy officer at the ECDPM think tank told Devex by email, “this seems to have a very limited traction in reality.”

Meanwhile, OACPS’ current leadership has openly courted other potential backers, including China and the countries in the Persian Gulf.

Aligning with reality

It may not be clear what OACPS does — its last annual report covers the year 2021 — but the commission is clearly still picking up the bill.

Though “initially funded by the ACP Member States themselves,” a history from the European Parliament notes that “the secretariat soon found that arrears from some countries meant that a request for at least 50 per cent of its budget from [EU countries] was needed.”

Doens’ letter now points to “an excessive dependence on EU funds.” According to OACPS documents which were published online last year and then deleted, at the end of 2022, its own member states owed the group €4.1 million (US$4.33 million). OACPS had just €488,754 (US$529,145) of non-EU funds in the bank, with the rest (€4.1 million (US$4.33 million) coming from European taxpayers.

Overall, the commission spent €36.5 million (US$39.51 million) on the OACPS between 2013 and 2023, with €46.7 million (US$50.56 million) budgeted for the 2021-2027 period.

However, Doens’ letter shows since 2020 the commission has been trying to recover €5.6 million (US$6 million) given to OACPS for operating costs that have not been spent appropriately. That includes “undue borrowing of about EUR 4 million (US$4.33 million) from the EU prefinancing of the operating grant and then in the submission of non-eligible expenditures”, Doens wrote.

Some €2 million (US$2.16 million) was reimbursed in July 2023, but as of March this year, €3.6 million (US$3.89 million) was still being sought by the commission. And Doens wrote that the OACPS secretariat had not provided “reassurance on the capacity of the Secretariat” to reimburse that sum.

Despite a recent restructuring designed to reduce staff numbers, Doens wrote that in the group’s 2024 draft budget, “the weight of staff costs accounts for almost 70 percent of the budget whereas the activities accounts for 20 percent of the overall budget.”

With OACPS’ member contributions forecast to fall “across the board” this year, Doens wrote that the draft budget “does not seem to be aligned with the reality of the liabilities and the reduced income.”

According to the documents briefly published last year, those liabilities include around €5,295,000(US$5,733,280) in potential legal costs should the secretariat lose a number of court cases arising from the recent staff restructuring. The secretariat told ambassadors in June 2023 that “adequate provisions have not [been] made to cover these liabilities.”

Outstanding issues

Devex has reported on numerous problems at the OACPS:

• The failure to recover €81,556(US$88,307.20) in nondeclared cash, seized by authorities in France in October 2019 from a Brussels-based OACPS staffer en route to a conference in Niger where the money, OACPS argued, was intended to pay attendees per diems.

• The 2022 departure of one of its biggest members, South Africa, on the grounds that OACPS was superfluous to its relations with the EU.

• The commission spending €271,500 (US$293,974) this year to insert two external consultants into the secretariat’s finance department to try and reinforce its ability to answer the commission’s questions, and

• An aborted renovation attempt at the OACPS’ Brussels headquarters that has now cost European taxpayers €6 million (US$6.49 million) (according to Doens’ letter) and achieved nothing.

Asked in August 2023 whether it had concerns about how OACPS was spending EU taxpayers’ money, the commission replied that its support to the secretariat “follows standard procedures for the allocation of grants to International Organisations, including audit procedures.”

Haunted house

The secretariat left its long-standing headquarters in 2020 to allow for renovation works, but as Doens wrote, “the OACPS was unable to finalise and publish the tender specification for the renovation works.” Now, more than nine years after discussions began, and with €6 million US$6.49 million “spent on preparation and temporary solutions,” Doens wrote that “the Secretariat has not achieved tangible progress on the file.”

EU taxpayers paid millions for the OACPS to rent a large conference centre in the trendy Châtelain neighborhood for three years. And they are still paying for the group’s current temporary home at the Covent Garden office building in north-central Brussels.

The jointly agreed plan now is to sell the group’s historic headquarters and buy a new office space. However, this too has been delayed after the secretariat proposed two buildings that the commission argued were too big and too costly for the secretariat to maintain — an opinion that was supported by consultants, EY, brought in by the commission.

Doens told Chikoti in March that the commission will not finance the rent at Covent Garden beyond September 2025, and that the secretariat must have begun proceedings to sell the headquarters and acquire a new space by May 15 of this year. Neither the commission nor OACPS said whether this deadline was met.

The commission did not say whether it had carried through on Doens’ plan, outlined in the letter, to directly appoint more consultants (without a competitive tender) in order “to assist the Secretariat in the process of selling/purchase and preparing the negotiation report.”

The commission spokesperson told Devex, “All necessary measures have been and will be taken in line with EU rules and procedures and with the contractual obligations set in the agreement signed between the European Commission and the OACPS secretariat.”

Chikoti’s five-year term as secretary-general runs until 2025, but it is unclear what organisation his successor will inherit. Doens concluded his letter to the former Angolan foreign minister with an appeal: “I count on your personal commitment and on the sense of responsibility of the OACPS Ambassadors towards the organisation” he wrote, “for a timely, effective, and expedient action that will be the only way to reestablish the necessary trust between our two institutions.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.

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