The European Development Days (EDD) is a two-day development fair organised by the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union (EU), in Brussels every June with the objective to bring the European aid community together to exchange ideas, debate and network. Since its inception in 2006, EDD has provided a forum for several hundreds of thousands of development actors from UN bodies, government aid agencies and the private sector to policymakers, practitioners and researchers to present their latest and most innovative work, establish useful contacts, and start new partnerships. According to the organisers, EDD is now widely acknowledged to be the ‘Davos of Development’, promoting the global conversation on key development topics.
Despite the large number of participating organisations and the political, economic and social power several of the keynote speakers hold at global stage, EDD has relatively limited impact on influencing and pushing forward the global development agenda, let alone contributing to positive policy change. Participants are able to attend some informative panel discussions on current development priorities, become aware of interesting interventions to tackle major challenges, and create or renew their networks. No official report with recommendations is published, no blueprint or action plan is presented, no official statements or commitments to inform EU development policies are made on the closing day. This obviously limits the remarkable potential of EDD to shape such policies and strengthen the public profile of the EU as a key development player, although it praises itself and its member states for providing over 50% of all global development aid and being collectively the world’s leading donor. Nevertheless senior EU officials emphasize that EDD raises staff awareness and thus influences their development policies, and for most EDD provides an annual opportunity to come together, debate and showcase their work.
Under the theme ‘Women and girls at the forefront of sustainable development: Protect, Empower, Invest’, this year’s EDD combined the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with the European Union’s commitment to women’s empowerment and gender equality, and focused on three key priorities: ensuring the physical and psychological integrity of women and girls; promoting their economic and social rights and empowering them; and strengthening their voice and participation. All six GAGE capability areas featured strongly among the 15 EDD subthemes which included education, access to digital technology, health, gender-based violence, voice and agency, and economic participation, along with girls and women’s particular needs in rural and urban spaces, natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies. Most importantly, this year’s EDD had a specific subtheme dedicated to ‘Adolescent Girls and the Girl Child’, the ‘women of tomorrow’; it was under that subtheme that the GAGE programme was selected to present its work as a globally innovative project.
On 5 and 6 June 2018, the EDD provided 500 sessions with 2,670 speakers debating on best policies for gender equality, 18 brainstorming sessions and webinars with practitioners on the most pressing issues, and a large exhibition space, the Global Village, with 514 stands showcasing selected successful projects. Overall, the EDD brought together 4,500 organisations and 42,000 participants from 154 countries, including 100 world leaders such as the Presidents of Burkina Faso, Liberia and Rwanda, and seven Nobel Prize laureates. The European Commission also implemented the Young Leaders initiative that enabled 12 young women and 4 young men, aged 21 to 26 years and involved in gender equality efforts, to speak about their work and the challenges they face. During the event, the #SheIsWe, an intense social media campaign, was also running, promoting the message that women and girls’ empowerment benefits us all. The campaign engaged globally influential women and men and presented inspiring stories of women and girls who took action to improve the lives of their peers and promote the development of their communities.
While girls were frequently mentioned in most EDD sessions, only eight sessions focused explicitly on adolescent girls. Organised mostly by civil society organisations but also by the European Commission, the Belgian and German development agencies, UN bodies, such as the World Health Organisation and the Human Reproduction Programme, and global partnerships such as Gavi, these sessions typically focused on sexual and reproductive health issues, including female genital mutilation/ cutting, and discussed the best practices to empower adolescent girls and enable them to make informed decisions and access relevant services. Similarly, nearly a dozen of stands in the Global Village exhibited projects explicitly including girls into their title. However, only one stand focused specifically on adolescent girls, and this was the GAGE stand under the title of ‘Investing in capabilities and norm change to transform adolescent girls’ lives’.
The GAGE programme was selected by the organisers to present its work at the EDD for the first time this year. As they are both based at ODI, the GAGE programme collaborated with the ALIGN project, and shared the same stand in the allocated exhibition space. Our GAGE Senior Research Officer, Maria Stavropoulou, welcomed all visitors and spoke about the programme, its main components, objectives and emerging findings. During the two days of the EDD, nearly 100 people visited our stand to learn more about GAGE. They represented a wide range of development actors, from UN agencies and government representatives from both the North and the Global South to NGO practitioners, academic researchers and private donors. The majority reported being attracted by the explicit programmatic focus on adolescent girls, its broad geographic focus in Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA and South Asia, its longitudinal nature and its emphasis on generating quality evidence on what works to empower girls, recognising that despite the proliferation of programming in recent years, such evidence is still limited. Several representatives from NGOs and aid agencies enquired about the possibility to collaborate and maximise the potential for positive and sustainable change in the lives of adolescent girls, including opportunities for joint international and local events, workshops and webinars which are currently being explored. After a positive experience, we look forward to participating in the next EDD and continued presence in various international fora.