2. Belgium’s policy vision and framework

Belgium’s co-operation strategy is determined at the highest level of the federal government and is set out in a law and policy notes. However, this does not apply to federated entities, which have their own legislation and strategies. The 2013 Law on Development Co-operation sets out the purposes of development co-operation: sustainable human development, consolidation of democracy and the rule of law, and human dignity (Kingdom of Belgium, 2013[1]). According to ministerial guidance, this co-operation policy must contribute to global prosperity1 (De Croo, 2014[2]).

The positioning of development co-operation has evolved slightly during the review period: having highlighted the role of development co-operation in reducing illegal migration in Belgium in 2018-19, the current vision presents a more balanced approach that aims to maximise the positive effects and minimise the negative effects of migration on sustainable development.

The Minister for Development Co-operation’s policy brief (De Croo, 2014[2]) and annual policy notes connect the law’s main provisions to new developments in the international development agenda. Since it was drafted before 2015, the development co-operation law does not take into account all of the SDG concepts. However, it follows the same philosophy, with a rights-based approach similar to the principle of leaving no one behind (see next section). Despite this theoretical alignment, there have been no operational changes to programming to implement the practical consequences of the 2030 Agenda (HIVA-KU Leuven and IOB-UAntwerp, 2020[3]). In particular, the co-operation strategy does not specify how it will address the interactions and interdependencies between its thematic and sectoral priorities. To overcome these shortcomings, the DGD is working to define a conceptual framework that will better integrate the SDGs into each actor’s programming, based on the research project on “The SDGs as a Compass for Belgian Development Co-operation” (HIVA-KU Leuven and IOB-UAntwerp, 2020[3]) (Chapter 1).2

The policy brief stresses the need to focus Belgian co-operation on fragile states and post-conflict areas in two regions: West Africa and the Great Lakes region. Belgium has therefore stopped its government co-operation with 6 of its partners – mostly middle-income countries – to focus on 14 countries and territories, only 2 of which are not part of these regional subsets3 (Figure 2.1). With the exception of Morocco, all government co-operation partner countries and territories are now fragile contexts or LDCs. This concentration provides opportunities to develop regional approaches. However, this regional perspective is mainly reflected at the political level and through participation in regional bodies;4 it is rarely associated with cross-border strategies and programmes.5 For example, Belgium participates in the G5 Sahel, the Sahel Alliance and other regional initiatives.6 It also maintains a presence within three regional organisations7 and envisions a general policy approach within the Sahel taskforce (Chapter 7).8 However, it has neither regional development strategies nor cross-border programming instruments, with the exception of programmes in Mali, which were implemented jointly with the European Union (EU).

Although the federal law and successive policy notes share the same goals, they differ in part on thematic priorities because the government has introduced new priorities in an effort to modernise development co-operation. Belgian co-operation therefore has 12 thematic and sectoral priorities (Figure 2.2). These priorities are equal on paper but are subject to an informal hierarchy that favours the most recent. Moreover, while policy notes specify how these new themes and sectors can contribute to the development of partner countries and territories in theory, efforts will be needed to establish approaches that are tailored to each fragile context (Chapter 7).

Belgium is aware of these difficulties and had planned to update the federal law. However, this project was abandoned in 2019 due to the lack of a government majority. Resuming this project could provide an opportunity to realign strategic priorities within an overall logic that states expected changes and clarifies the complementarities and interdependencies between priorities. If it was conducted through broad consultation, this reflection could strengthen ownership of the co-operation strategy by all stakeholders.

Poverty reduction is at the heart of Belgium’s co-operation policy and is evident in its geographic targeting and rights-based approach. The 2013 law sets out how Belgium plans to support inclusive and sustainable economic growth in order to eradicate poverty, exclusion and inequality and strengthen its partners’ capacities. This prioritisation of poverty reduction is particularly reflected in the commitment to allocate at least 50% of Belgian bilateral aid to LDCs. Although this target has not yet been met and no deadline has been set – despite the recommendations of the previous peer review (OECD, 2015[5]) – LDCs received 31.2% of bilateral aid in 2017-18 and new bilateral co-operation carried out by Enabel is focused on such countries and territories, putting Belgium on the right track (Chapter 3).

Although Belgian strategy papers hardly refer to the objective of leaving no one behind, the rights-based approach serves as an analytical framework for identifying the poorest and most marginalised populations whose rights and freedoms are violated. Within this framework, Belgium and its partners have engaged in sometimes difficult discussions on governance issues – discussions that have had consequences for both the volumes and modalities of aid delivery (Chapter 5). This approach is also reflected in the focus on women’s and children’s rights. However, despite the recommendations of the previous review (OECD, 2015[5]), this is not yet accompanied by clear programmatic guidance on how the most marginalised will be included and how intervention sectors will be chosen in country portfolios. In Burkina Faso, for example, while human rights are an essential element of general policy dialogue, few interventions deal directly with this theme. A more in-depth analysis of power relations, risks and vulnerabilities would enable Belgium to ensure that its co-operation programme benefits those left behind in the various intervention contexts.

Fragile situations are at the heart of Belgium’s co-operation policy. Belgium is seeking to focus its assistance on fragile and post-conflict countries that remain dependent on aid and where development co-operation can make a difference. Its approach to fragile situations is guided by a strong strategic framework but implementation requires better institutional anchoring (Chapter 7).

Belgian co-operation is legally required to mainstream gender equality, the environment, climate and natural resources as cross-cutting themes in its programmes. These obligations are reflected in BIO and Enabel management contracts and in the accreditation of non-government actors (NGAs).9 Belgium addresses these themes through targeted and integrated actions and through international advocacy, particularly on gender equality issues (Chapter 1).

To guide its partners in considering cross-cutting themes, and in line with the recommendations of the 2015 review (OECD, 2015[5]), the DGD has drawn up strategy notes (DGD, 2014[6]), (DGD, 2016[7]); an action plan (DGD, 2016[8]); and toolkits,10 but their impact on programming remains limited. In particular, the accreditation process for NGAs has revealed that their programmes do not adequately take gender equality issues into account. Within the bilateral portfolio as a whole, although the share of aid specifically targeting gender issues is higher than the DAC average (Chapter 3), it is difficult to mobilise dedicated funding outside the She Decides initiative. Attention to climate and the environment is mainly reflected in targeted funding and is not systematically integrated into direct bilateral co-operation portfolios.11 Although monitoring mechanisms have been strengthened, the administration has not yet been able to measure the impact of its funding on these themes. This dynamic would be strengthened by improving institutionalisation of the approach and tools among partners, including gender and environment strategies in other strategy notes, and strengthening the administration’s capacity to measure the impact of its funding.

Finally, there are limited human resources available to ensure that these themes are taken into account across Belgian co-operation, particularly for environmental issues. Despite the limited number of staff working on gender,12 the DGD and Enabel have access to informal networks of internal experts within the FPS and the agency, as well as the Advisory Council on Gender and Development, which brings together external experts13 to cover gender issues. A similar approach could facilitate the consideration of environmental and climate issues.

The basis for decision making depends on the channel of delivery: direct bilateral co-operation via Enabel, indirect bilateral co-operation via autonomous actors such as BIO and NGAs, or multilateral co-operation (Figure 2.3). As Belgium promotes its partners’ autonomy (next section and Chapter 4), there is no framework to specify how these different actors fit into an overall strategy at the country or global levels (Chapter 5), or to guide allocations. The ongoing project to establish country strategies that cover all delivery channels may help to overcome this difficulty.

The geographic priorities for direct bilateral co-operation are clearly specified by royal decree and limit government to government co-operation to a limited number of countries and territories. Outside of the direct bilateral co-operation implemented by Enabel, which represents 13% of total Belgium’s official development assistance (Box 4.1), these geographic priorities are only indicative, which prevents Belgium from fully achieving its objective to focus on LDCs (Chapter 3). Other partners, such as BIO and NGAs, define their own geographic priorities,14 which systematically include all 14 direct bilateral co-operation partners. Thus, in total, Belgian co-operation includes 59 partner countries and territories. Priority partners receive less than one-third of total bilateral aid, but receive 56% of earmarked bilateral aid (Chapter 3).15

The DGD has also drafted sectoral and thematic strategy notes to guide decision making. However, mostly drafted before 2015, they are not systematically used by its partners, who tend to develop their own strategies to guide their decisions. The ongoing revision of these strategy notes, combined with a monitoring mechanism (Chapter 6), will make it possible to specify their operational scope and to highlight the contribution of the interventions to the SDGs. By clarifying the interdependencies among thematic priorities – including on issues of fragility, gender equality and environmental protection – these notes can facilitate and increase transparency on how thematic priorities are selected in each context,16 noting that decisions are currently taken at the ministerial level (Chapter 4). In fact, the coexistence of the two strategic frameworks has slowed the drafting of new country portfolios due to the frequent back and forth in Brussels and between Brussels and local representations to validate the priority themes.

Belgian co-operation actors are unanimous on the importance of partnerships to achieve the SDGs. In terms of administration, this results in clear bases for partnership with each type of actor, and the promotion of multi-actor partnerships. Thus, although the partnership strategy with multilateral organisations is longstanding (DGD, 2011[9]) and the strategy with civil society organisations is being drafted, the criteria for selecting these partners are clearly identified by royal decree and their rationale is clear to the entire administration. The drafting of two new strategies will provide an opportunity to clarify what impacts are expected from these partnerships and their links to the SDGs.

The administration also facilitates multi-actor partnerships, such as Be-cause Health17 or Beyond Chocolate (Box 1.1), as well as within common strategic frameworks (CSFs) for civil society organisations (Box 5.1). Enabel’s new ability to establish direct partnerships with NGOs, multilateral organisations and private sector organisations should reinforce this dynamic and aligns with the recommendations of the previous peer review (OECD, 2015[5]). Nevertheless, these multi-actor partnerships are mostly established on an ad-hoc basis.

Belgium recognises the role of civil society – including the academic community – as a major actor in development co-operation. Through its partnership with NGAs, Belgium seeks to strengthen the capacity of civil society to promote, claim and exercise its rights within the framework of the SDGs, and to strengthen public commitment to inclusive and sustainable international development. Recognising NGAs’ right of initiative, the Belgian administration guarantees their autonomy through long-term and flexible funding mechanisms (Chapter 5). In line with the recommendations of the previous peer review (OECD, 2015[5]), the administration has embarked on a process of streamlining and consolidating these partnerships. Continuing these efforts will strengthen the link between direct and indirect bilateral co-operation (Chapters 3 and 5).

Despite the promotion of multi-actor partnerships to facilitate beneficiaries’ participation, the role of civil society from developing countries and territories is given little prominence in strategy documents and direct funding for these actors is limited (Chapter 3). However, Enabel can now fund local partners and attaches great importance to strengthening their capacities, which is in keeping with the purpose of Belgian co-operation and its human rights-based approach. Continuing in this direction should make it possible to address the social and political dimensions of fragility (Chapter 7) and to strengthen the focus of Belgian co-operation on those who are left behind.

The Belgian SDG Charter – launched in 2016 and signed by 126 representatives of the private sector, civil society and the public sector – is at the heart of the renewed partnership with the Belgian private sector (DGD & The Shift, 2016[10]).18 This charter marks the transition from an approach initially focused on supporting the local private sector (DGD, 2014[11]) through BIO and the Trade for Development Centre managed by Enabel, to a commitment to sustainable development by Belgian and international private actors. Partnership is sought with the Belgian private sector not only to mobilise its technical or financial capacities, but also to contribute to a change in practices that promotes sustainable development. This search for renewed partnership has resulted in a new financing instrument, the Business Partnership Facility (BPF) to finance Belgian and international small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)19 (Chapter 5), BIO SDG frontier fund (Chapter 3) and the Beyond Chocolate initiative (Box 1.1). The new government to government co-operation country portfolios also pay increased attention to developing the local private sector in partnership with various actors. However, Belgium is yet to define an overall strategy for engagement with the private sector that takes this reorientation into account and is valid for all its implementing partners (SES, 2018[12]).

Belgium is a strong supporter of the multilateral framework, due to its normative and co-ordinating role as well as its ability to make its voice heard globally (Chapter 1). Funding multilateral partners solely through central budget contributions (Chapter 3) and the country’s participation in the Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN) align with Belgium’s strategy to strengthen the effectiveness of the multilateral system. The findings of the Office of the Special Evaluator’s evaluation of Belgium’s funding strategy for multilateral organisations will be useful in ensuring that this ambition is translated into practice.

The EU is the preferred multilateral partner, both to amplify Belgium’s voice on the international stage and to defend common positions. This preference is particularly explained by the impact that policies decided at the European level can have on developing countries.

With a view to streamlining its aid, Belgium has also reduced its other priority multilateral organisations from 20 to 15.20 Partners are selected based on their performance, their alignment with Belgian co-operation priorities, and Belgium’s ability to make its voice heard. Current efforts to promote funding for central budgets through active dialogue and monitoring with representatives in partner countries and territories are in line with this approach, and should make it possible to strengthen synergies between bilateral and multilateral aid. For example, conducting strategic dialogue (along with other donors) with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has allowed discussions to go beyond individual funding. However, this approach is putting pressure on the diminishing human resources of embassies, which are now charged with this new role (Chapter 4).


[4] De Croo, A. (2018), “Note de politique générale - Développement international” [Policy Note - International Development] [in French], Minister of Development Cooperation, the Digital Agenda, Telecommunications and Post, Chamber of Representatives, Brussels, http://www.lachambre.be (accessed on 14 April 2020).

[2] De Croo, A. (2014), “Exposé d’orientation politique - Coopération au développement” [Policy Brief] [in French], Minister of Development Cooperation, the Digital Agenda, Telecommunications and Post, Chamber of Representatives, Brussels, https://www.lachambre.be/flwb/pdf/54/0020/54K0020046.pdf.

[7] DGD (2016), “Le genre dans la Coopération belge au développement” [in French], FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Brussels, https://diplomatie.belgium.be/sites/default/files/downloads/Le-genre-dans-la-Cooperation-belge-au-developpement.pdf.

[8] DGD (2016), “Plan d’action relatif a l’integration de la dimension de genre”, FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Brussels, https://diplomatie.belgium.be/sites/default/files/downloads/Plan-action-dimension-de-genre.pdf.

[11] DGD (2014), “Note stratégique - Coopération belge au développement et secteur privé local : un appui au service du développement humain durable” [in French], FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Brussels, http://www.diplomatie.be/oda/note_secteur_prive.pdf.

[6] DGD (2014), “Note stratégique - L’environnement dans la Coopération belge au Développement” [in French], FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Brussels, https://diplomatie.belgium.be/sites/default/files/downloads/Note_strategique_Environnement.pdf.

[9] DGD (2011), “Note de politique sur la coopération au développement multilatérale” [in French], FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Brussels, https://diplomatie.belgium.be/sites/default/files/downloads/note_politique_cooperation_multilaterale_2011.pdf.

[10] DGD & The Shift (2016), Belgian SDG Charter: The Belgian SDG Charter on the role of private sector, civil society and public sector in international development, The Shift, Brussels, https://theshift.be/uploads/media/57f3a8cfcfffe/Charter%20SDG4D%20-%20DEFINITIEF.pdf.

[3] HIVA-KU Leuven and IOB-UAntwerp (2020), “The SDGs as a Compass for the Belgian Development Co-operation - Final report”, HIVA-KU Leuven, Leuven, http://repository.uantwerpen.be › docstore › d:irua:551.

[1] Kingdom of Belgium (2013), Loi Relative à la Coopération au Développement [Law on Development Co-operation] [in French], http://www.uvcw.be/no_index/files/240-loi-coop-au-developpement-19-03-13.pdf.

[5] OECD (2015), OECD Development Co-operation Peer Reviews: Belgium 2015, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264239906-en.

[12] SES (2018), “Évaluation de l’appui au secteur privé par la coopération belge au développement” [in French], FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Brussels, https://diplomatie.belgium.be/sites/default/files/downloads/evaluation_psd_rapport_final_fr_web_compressed.pdf.


← 1. In his policy brief, the minister states that such prosperity includes increased trade; greater exchange of expertise and technology; and joint action against climate change, inequality, contagious diseases, exploitation and terrorism.

← 2. This research analyses if and how Belgian development actors are working with the underlying principles of the SDG framework, and monitoring and reporting their contribution to the SDGs. It proposes an analytical framework and practical recommendations to improve each actor’s consideration of the 2030 Agenda.

← 3. The 14 partner countries and territories for Belgian government co-operation are Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Of these partners, only the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not part of the regions mentioned, and only Morocco and the West Bank and Gaza Strip do not share a common border with another partner country. Belgium withdrew from Algeria, Plurinational States of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, South Africa and Viet Nam following the Royal Decree on 29 May 2015.

← 4. The administration can only finance a maximum of five regional organisations that are aligned with Belgium’s co-operation priorities.

← 5. Mainly in the humanitarian aid sector.

← 6. Including the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel and the Coalition for the Sahel.

← 7. Belgium funds the Sahel and West Africa Club, sits on the Board of Directors of the West African Development Bank (WADB) and is accredited to the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU).

← 8. This taskforce organises interdepartmental exchanges in Brussels among the DGD, bilateral services and other FPS, such as Defence.

← 9. NGAs are civil society organisations, university umbrella organisations, organisations supported by regional political authorities, city and municipality umbrella organisations, and research institutes.

← 10. For example, the KLIMOS toolkit, built in partnership with the academic community, provides preliminary assessment tools to help consider environmental issues when identifying, formulating, implementing and evaluating co-operation programmes. The “Body & Rights” e-tutorial helps to raise awareness among staff of sexual and reproductive health and rights issues around the world.

← 11. Consideration of environmental issues is reflected in multilateral funding, BIO financing and Enabel’s accreditation to the Green Climate Fund.

← 12. The DGD has a part-time gender adviser, supported by two part-time officers who deal with sexual and reproductive health and rights.

← 13. Created in 2014, the Advisory Council on Gender and Development is composed of representatives from the academic world, NGOs, women’s councils and the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men. Its mission is to advise the administration and the minister on strategic and programming issues in order to inform the positions adopted by Belgium at the international level.

← 14. After agreement from the minister in the case of BIO.

← 15. NGAs receiving Belgian grants are active in 44 countries and territories, 32 of which are subject to a Common Strategic Framework. BIO is active in 52 countries and territories. The instrument for partnership with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the Business Partnership Facility (BPF), is not subject to geographic or thematic limitations.

← 16. Belgium has committed to investing in a maximum of three sectors as part of its direct bilateral co-operation.

← 17. Be-cause Health is an informal and pluralistic platform that is open to both institutional and individual members who are active and interested in international public health issues. Be-cause Health strives to ensure equitable access to good quality responsive health services for all, and in particular the most vulnerable, embedded in strong, resilient and sustainable health systems. For more information, see: www.be-causehealth.be/en/.

← 18. This charter aims to develop multi-actor collaboration (including the Belgian private sector) to support the SDGs; contribute to inclusive economic growth in emerging economies and fragile states; and support the principles of sustainable supply chains and human rights due diligence.

← 19. The BPF co-finances initiatives by small and medium enterprises carried out in partnership with non-government and academic organisations, aimed at developing the local economy and private sector.

← 20. The 15 multilateral partner organisations defined by the Council of Ministers on 21 May 2015 are as follows: the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR); the World Health Organization (WHO); the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS); the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women); the International Labour Organization (ILO); the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (the Global Fund); the World Bank – including heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC), SMEs, the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI), the International Development Association (IDA), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), and the African Development Fund (AfDF); the International Monetary Fund (IMF); and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Humanitarian partner organisations – the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – are governed by the Royal Decree of 19 April 2014.

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