Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), Chief Executive Officer Rémy Rioux sheds light on the world’s oldest public development institution, which implements France’s policies in the areas of international solidarity and sustainable development. He describes AFD’s alliances with public development banks in Africa, and its work alongside developing and emerging countries all over the world. Interview by Hichem Ben Yaïche and Nicolas Bouchet.
You have been leading AFD since 2016 and have just celebrated its 80th anniversary. For this occasion, you have chosen the evocative title “80 years by your side”. How do you see this new step, which will be a kind of revolution compared to the previous period? How do you see the future?
I don’t know if it is a revolution, but we are definitely moving forward! New steps are invariably built on existing foundations. And AFD has, since its origins, always provided support for others, including in ways that reinforce local project management. In Brazzaville a few days ago, I was pleased to pay tribute to our founder Charles de Gaulle. It was Africa that liberated France, in the sense that many of our troops and financial resources were mobilised on the African continent, which in turn helped liberate France in 1941.
Since 2015, we have taken several steps. I have spent a lot of time meeting with all the stakeholders in the French ecosystem: our civil society, local authorities, companies, research centres, etc, to remind them, in the wake of the Paris Climate Agreement, of the importance of international action, notably with Africa, our immense neighbour, the continent of the past, present and future, of opportunities and youth.
We then built the second step of our project, behind our motto “For a world in common”, leading us to work well beyond public development aid. The Covid-19 pandemic has just taught us that we must quickly invent ways to manage and finance our common goods together.
I am thinking of the climate, biodiversity and global health. But let’s not forget education and gender equality, which have been so badly affected by this crisis, which has exacerbated inequalities and increased the risk of a great divergence between the different regions of the world.
This second step in our transformation has taken the form of the “Finance in Common” (FICS) movement, which has already twice brought together the 530 public development banks, our brothers and sisters around the world. There are almost 100 in Africa!
Within the FICS, we are not at all in a logic of aid or assistance but of co-investment on issues of mutual interest. After Paris in 2020 and Rome in 2021, we will meet again in Abidjan in the autumn of 2022, upon the invitation of the African Development Bank and the European Investment Bank, which I warmly thank for their commitment.
I believe we are now entering a third step in our revolution, as we began to demonstrate at AFD’s anniversary on December 2, in the magnificent Verniquet amphitheatre of the Natural History Museum.
Why not be even more clearly and strongly supportive of others, that is to say, build an institution whose mission would be first to understand very deeply and carefully, with as much respect as possible, the dynamics and blockages, the lessons and innovations that can be found elsewhere in the world?
Then, to invest as ambitiously as possible with our partners to accompany them in their sustainable development trajectory and to weave multiple links with France and Europe, in their own interest and ours.
AFD is the financial pillar of French cooperation, we must not forget that. How do you define your boundaries? What dependencies do you have and what degree of autonomy gives you this momentum and ambition?
AFD is obviously at the service of our development policy, which is a pillar of our international policy. This policy has been strongly revitalised and transformed under the impetus of the President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron and ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian and Bruno Le Maire.
A development programming law was passed in Parliament last August [editor’s note: the Orientation and Programming Law on Development and International Solidarity Policy], the only text voted unanimously by the French Parliament during this administration. This law has brought development policy to a whole new level, that people have been waiting for. We are honored and obliged to meet that expectation.
AFD is in charge of implementing the bilateral part of France’s action in this area, in line with the priorities defined in this text. And the year 2021 is ending well, in line with the goals set. We have once again deployed €12bn in financing, a large amount, with 60% of this funding having a direct positive impact on the climate and almost 50% contributing to reducing inequalities between women and men.
Also, 55% of the projects supported by AFD this year were carried out by non-governmental stakeholders, which is certainly an international record.
While we rigorously respect the major political priorities set by the government and parliament, we always check to ensure there is a demand that corresponds to local expectations, so we do not impose unwanted projects or policies on our clients and partners. Development policy is a partnership policy.
How can you explain that there is so much criticism of the notion of development aid? And what significance do you attach to this criticism in your vision and strategy?
80 years is a long history. AFD has undergone successive changes that we need to know about in order to be able to assess and reform. I like to remind people that we were born of the Free French Forces, the Resistance and the war.
AFD is not an instrument of the colonial era. On the contrary: until 1946, the French colonies were supposed to finance themselves and even bring profits to the colonising power. There were therefore no financial transfers from the metropolis to the colonised territories. It took events as tragic as a world war and then decolonisation for AFD, – then called the Caisse centrale de la France Libre and subsequently the Caisse de la France d’Outremer – to emerge and prosper.
The problem with public development aid is that its definition, words and most of its instruments date from a very long time ago, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s. This framework has become terribly outdated, and no international consensus has yet emerged to revise it.
Just as Françafrique has become a distraction, which misleads and obscures what relations between Africa and France are becoming, we are already beyond public development aid in many ways, and these words now constrain us and hold us back because they still weigh on perceptions.
This is one of the reasons why President Emmanuel Macron wants to change AFD’s name, to rewrite the software, and align it with the world of the Paris Agreement and the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Changing our name will not be enough, of course, but if it is an opportunity for a rethink, it is excellent news! We will get stronger and gain new perspectives, I am sure.
AFD is heavily involved in Africa, and you have worked closely with emblematic African figures like Achille Mbembé and Felwine Sarr. Despite your vision of co-development, France continues to be criticised. How do you explain this?
I was trained as a historian, and I know that the dead often still have a hold on the living. But the repetition, the strength, and the coherence of the acts of recognition and the speeches of the President of the Republic since 2017, especially his speech in Ouagadougou in November 2018, are beginning to show results.
What President Macron did in Rwanda, where I accompanied him, was very important from this point of view. Not everything in our relationship is financial or economic, and we can use other words to describe our partnerships, and we will have other ways to write this history, other ways of getting at the truth of the matter.
We have prepared the ground in our own way, for example by resuming our work in Kigali since June 2019 where we will soon inaugurate our new field office, which has been closed since 1994. This will open a new chapter in our collective history.
I believe that what was expressed on October 8 at the New Africa-France Summit in Montpellier, a new kind of summit, was part of the same process of recognition and renewal. A page has been turned, in dialogue and respect and on the solid basis of Achille Mbembé’s report. We must revitalise our relationship and make it more useful for Africa and for France. Our organisation is doing its part.
As you said, AFD’s activity today amounts to more than €12 billion a year, but how do you look at Africa today with the crises, conflicts and wars that are raging on the continent? Do you have a method for operating in these crises to ensure that you are effective in the field?
Our strategy could be summed up in the “all-Africa” perspective that we have adopted since 2017 to see Africa as a whole, and take into account the positive developments that the continent has experienced over the past thirty years. A lot of growth, a lot of investment, in education, in access to energy and water, to a lesser extent in health. Africa’s indicators are generally improving, at least before the Covid-19 crisis.
Of course, the current crisis once again poses a great risk of divergence between the African continent and the rest of the world. But we should not forget the previous stage of construction and gradual convergence of Africa with its neighbours.
And then, once you consider Africa as a whole, you can see all the Africas. Such a vast continent, with very different and contrasting situations. Those who invest in Africa must have the capacity to work in a country like South Africa, where we now have the historic opportunity to work on implementing the strong commitments made by the Ramaphosa government at COP26 in Glasgow to achieve the energy transition and carbon neutrality.
But we must also know how to work in the red zone, in countries that are currently very destabilised by the terrorist threat and the splits that divide their societies, whether in the Sahel, the Central African Republic or Ethiopia.
This requires that AFD be an agile institution, able to adjust and react quickly, while controlling its risks so as not to jeopardise the robustness of its economic model. We seek to finance more and more quality projects with maximum positive impact for populations. And we help define good public policies, in particular to enable the emergence of SMEs.
The French Presidency of the European Union begins in 2022 with a Europe-Africa summit. How are you involved in this event that will involve Africa, France and Europe?
A few weeks ago, I went to Lomé with the European Commission’s Director General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA), my friend Koen Doens, EIB Vice-President Ambroise Fayolle and our Spanish and German colleagues to show our Togolese partners the ambition of a united Europe and its capacity for financial innovation.
We visited the large technical waste disposal centre in the city of Lomé, major infrastructure for the wellbeing of the population.
I also went to Dakar for the inauguration of the great urban train, the Dakar TER, with President Macky Sall, the future President of the African Union, who, along with President Macron, will host the summit between Africa and Europe in February. We want to demonstrate that Europe is capable of investing massively in the green infrastructure that Africa needs.
I have also planned a trip soon with the President of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina. We are working to find, between the public financial institutions of our two regions, the best ways to finance green investments, the strengthening of health systems and education.
We will also have structuring discussions on the Great Green Wall project, a major integrating project likely to change the image of the Sahel region and help it overcome the troubles that are disrupting it. The partnership that we are seeking to redefine between Africa and France must be used for concrete actions.
Do these meetings really have an impact on the ground, and on these relationships?
We are in the final phase of programming the European Union’s international funding for the next seven years. In February, we will be debating the proposal that the EU is making to the AU, regarding European Union spending and the financial commitments of each of the Member States. We are now in a joint programming process, between all Europeans, with the “Team Europe Initiatives (TEI)”. We will be able to give our partners a medium-term vision of our partnership.
We also expect the important work of what is called the European taxonomy of green and sustainable investments to make good progress. This is critical because there is a big debate going on in Africa right now about how to best provide access to energy for people. As we move away from coal, we need to adopt the lowest carbon energy mix possible around the world, raising our standards on renewable energy and calibrating gas needs.
Obviously, the AU and African states will come to the Brussels summit with their own priorities. I believe that a new kind of alliance will emerge, based on a different narrative and with financial resources commensurate with the crisis that has hit us, by also mobilising the private sector in Africa.
We will also be able to take stock in February of the progress made at the summit on the financing of African economies held in Paris on May 18, in particular on the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) and the strengthening of African development financing institutions, themes to which President Macron is particularly committed.
In this rapidly changing world, you prefer the word “interaction.” Does this interaction replace a more programmatic approach?
The Covid-19 crisis is enlightening in many ways. Not surprisingly, it showed the strength and primary responsibility of nations. When the crisis occurred, each country had to take action to protect its citizens. This was done effectively in Europe as well as in Africa.
Then there was the time for a multilateral response, since certain responses can only be identified and mobilised at a global level. This is the case when it comes to financing research on new vaccines, at costs that exceed what each State can do alone. There are global public goods whose collective management must be defended, even if the multilateral system has shown serious shortcomings this time.
We are now entering a third phase of the crisis where we realise that responses at the regional level must also be built. It will be extremely interesting to see how the European Union and the African Union can contribute together to ending the crisis.
Regarding global health, the ACT-A and Covax mechanisms exist at the multilateral level. But let us also look at the response that Africa has provided by mobilising its own institutions. I am thinking of the role of my friend Vera Songwe’s UNECA, and of John Nkengasong’s CDC Africa. I’m also thinking of Benedict Oramah’s Afreximbank, which hosts the AVATT vaccine purchasing platform, which the KfW and AFD have recently financed, and of the African Development Bank for Health Infrastructure, which is at the head of the network of public development banks in Africa.
There is a part of the response to our crises that must obviously be built at the regional level. This is true in Europe and in Africa and we can usefully exchange on our respective ways of operating. Twenty years ago, when the AU was born, I remember the extremely deep dialogue that existed between our two Unions on the importance of regional action. Let us resume this discussion!
I cannot fail to ask you about the joint finance initiative with 530 public development banks through the IDFC club. Are you seeing the results of this collective action?
It is a fascinating initiative, whose full potential is only beginning to unfold. And it contributes to the forging of the new narrative I mentioned before, where our capacity for action rises to the scale of the problems before us, and goes far beyond mere charity.
It is truly a world of cooperation and investment in solidarity. I would remind you that Finance in Common (FIC) has a financial capacity of $2,500bn each year, unevenly distributed of course, but with support points all over the world. African public development banks must be strengthened so that they are more powerful and play their full role in financing the continent on its own, through its own strengths, through its savings and through its ability to cooperate with the rest of the world.
AFD is actively doing this since more than 10% of our financing now goes through public development banks of the Global South every year.
These banks also help to maintain a sense of concreteness and impact, when our macroeconomic and financial debates sometimes become a little esoteric, when it comes to monetary or fiscal policy. It seems to me that it is very useful to increase the voice of public development banks in order to send a positive, concrete and long-term message in this prolonged crisis and to ensure that the world after does not look like the world before.
Given your background, your ideas and your expertise, you seem to be totally in tune with the institution. Today, do you have a desire and an energy to go further in this cooperation with Africa and with the world?
I have the most beautiful job in the world, you know, at the head of an institution that is special because of its mission, because of the quality of its employees and because of the results it achieves all over the world, alongside populations that show so much resilience and innovation.
I would like to thank and congratulate all of our colleagues at AFD who have been doing their jobs on a daily basis in our field offices and in Paris, as well as at Expertise France and at Proparco, working closely with our clients and partners. This is a great French success!