25 July 2013

Africa: Belgian Budget for Research Cooperation Dodges Cuts

Brussels — Belgium's programmes for academic cooperation to assist development escaped drastic cuts to their 2013 budgets, bringing relief to hundreds of students in developing nations awaiting Belgian scholarships.

The decision was announced last week (15 July), after a lengthy political standoff between the country's different government entities.

Two bodies running programmes for inter-university cooperation with developing nations had been threatened with severe cuts: VLIR-UOS in the part of Belgium where Flemish, a Belgian form of Dutch is spoken, and CIUF-CUD in French-speaking universities.

Both bodies receive their funding - about €35 million (just over US$46 million) and €31 million (nearly US$41 million) a year respectively - from Belgium's federal government.

But in 2012, the government included university cooperation for development on a list of policy areas that it said should be the responsibility of the country's regional entities.

Belgium is a federal state with a complex political make-up: it comprises three regions (Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia) and three language communities (Dutch, French and German). The language and regional borders are not the same, so these administrative divisions do not overlap, and each entity has distinct powers and responsibilities, including in funding research.

As a result of its decision to devolve responsibility for university cooperation for development, the federal government announced in May that it would phase out its funding for VLIR-UOS and CIUF-CUD and, as part of this, only release 67 per cent of their 2013 budgets. This reduction was also part of federal budget savings to cope with the economic crisis and comply with the European Union's demands for budget discipline.

However, the Flemish- and French-speaking sides were not able or ready to pay for the remaining third of the organisations' budget.

As a consequence of the budget shortfall VLIR-UOS said in June that 32 cooperation projects would not be able to take place, and 265 students from the South and 186 Flemish students would not get a scholarship this year.

Both programmes also campaigned against the decision, arguing in particular that the transfer of responsibility over this area was legally unsound.

Finally, after weeks of negotiations at the highest political level, the cut and the devolution were reversed earlier this month.

University cooperation is just a small part of a larger political game relating to budget negotiations and the division of responsibilities, says Kristien Verbrugghen, director of VLIR-UOS.

A spokesman for Jean-Pascal Labille, federal minister for development cooperation, says that political wrangling within Belgium should not stand in the way of valuable projects in the South. "It doesn't matter where the money comes from, that's a 'Belgo-Belgian' [an internal] problem. The most important thing is that the projects can get started on the ground."

Despite the good news, some of the damage is likely to be difficult to undo.

The tardy budget cut announcement - that came in May for 2013 budget - had disappointed academics and students in Belgium and in the developing nations, who were eager to start joint research projects or training.

"It was a disaster," says Verbrugghen. "We had to tell our partners: 'Hold your horses!'. This had an impact on our reputation, on our universities and academics. "Murielle Andersson, the secretary-general of CIUF-CUD, agrees.

For example, CIUF-CUD is launching cooperation programmes with three universities in Ecuador, Madagascar and Niger, and the funding uncertainties may have damaged their trust in their new Belgian partners.

"The risk we face is that [academics] lose their motivation. The longer we wait [for the programmes to roll out], the higher the risk," says Andersson.

For both programmes, an upside of this budget saga was that the debate has been political and technical, and never questioned the programmes' value.

Kelly Guerrier, a Haitian who received funding from CIUF-CUD to complete a geotechnics PhD at the Université Catholique de Louvain, describes taking part in the cooperation programme as one of the best experiences of his life.

After his PhD, Guerrier plans to return to Haiti to work as a university lecturer and an expert on risk prevention for construction projects.

"CIUF-CUD gives you support, then lets you be autonomous and take the initiative in your own research projects," he says.

To ensure stable support for people such as Guerrier, Andersson and Verbrugghen hope that the budget issue will not resurface in coming years.

"This was bad governance," Verbrugghen says. "We teach people in the South about good governance, but our politicians in Belgium should have taken the course."

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