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With aid budgets under pressure in most donor nations, the focus has rightly moved to improving the quality and effectiveness of international assistance, encouraging private/public partnerships, making national and international policies more coherent and helping developing nations to improve tax collection regimes.

Stronger coordination, rather than aid competition, among key aid donors to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is also crucial. Closer donor dialogue and discussion on combating poverty is set to become even more urgent in view of the need for increased aid to crisis-hit North Africa and demands for more financial help from other developing countries, including many in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, facing escalating food and fuel prices.

These new challenges, including those triggered by natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and tsunamis, add to the old ones.

Progress so far in achieving key MDGs remains patchy, with the United Nations pointing to huge disparities across and within countries. Sub-Saharan Africa is still struggling with continuing food insecurity, a rise in extreme poverty, stunningly high child and maternal mortality, and large numbers of people living in slums. Although Asia is the region with the fastest progress, hundreds of millions of people in the region also remain in extreme poverty.

The MDGs cover targets for the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, gender equality, reduced child mortality, improved maternal health, lower HIV/Aids and malaria infection and more environmental sustainability. Set at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, they are expected to be met by 2015. However, with “aid fatigue” on the rise in many Western nations, prospects for meeting the deadline appear slim.

Policymakers in the European Union and the United States are struggling to make a stronger political argument for continuing – and if possible increasing – development assistance. It is proving to be an uphill struggle, however.

European countries have “no right to fail” in their commitments to poorer nations, the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Andris Piebalgs said recently, underlining that EU countries must meet the target of spending 0.7 per cent of GNP on development aid despite the global economic turndown. “If you don’t do this, it is not just the projects that it will fail. If there is no trust, there is no success. If you promise you should deliver,” he said in The Irish Times.

The US Administration, also seeking to step up engagement in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, Central Asia and Latin America, has said that development assistance is “as central to advancing America’s interests as diplomacy and defense.”

Both the US and the EU argue that investments in global health and education are investments in global peace, stability and security and have warned that the financial and economic crisis has pushed even more people into extreme poverty.

At the EU-US summit in Lisbon in November 2009, both sides – representing nearly 80 per cent of global official development assistance – also agreed to intensify their development policy dialogue and increase cooperation in practical ways to achieve results, especially as regards food security, climate change and achieving the MDGs.

Such cooperation is good news at a time of rising demands for assistance and increasing pressure on Western treasuries to rein back spending. International aid programmes have been trammelled for too long by competition and lack of coordination among donors. EU-US cooperation in the sector could set a good example for others.