European Social Fund – for people, with people

The European Social Fund (ESF) was set up 60 years ago, at the same time the European Union was established. With its €10 billion a year, it is the EU’s main instrument to support projects that help people to get jobs, especially those that find it difficult. The funds are managed by the European Commission together with national and regional authorities. On 1 & 2 June is was invited to share civil society’s experiences if the ESF with the fund’s Transnational Platform, which brings together managing authorities.

Of the 100-plus organisations that responded to our survey, the majority have found accessing funding through the ESF to be difficult. Among the barriers are issues such as administrative burden of applications and reporting, politicians influencing decisions on funding, difficulties in getting accurate information in non-bureaucratic language, a lack of technical capacity to develop applications, difficulties in raising required co-funding, and delays in funding. A staggering 80 percent of all respondents replied that the managing authorities have not involved civil society as a partner in the design and implementation of funding – something the authorities are obliged to do. Although 20 percent of the ESF should go towards projects that fight poverty, focus still remains on employment and activation, instead of inclusion policies. One interesting trend is that there has been more allocation of funds to social inclusion projects that involve civil society organisations. Our recommendations are straightforward: simplify access to funds; allocate funds for active inclusion and reducing poverty; and involve civil society organisations. You can download my presentation of the survey results here.

Some of the few points that came out of the many parallel workshops, echoed Social Platform’s concerns:

Firstly, one size does not fit all, so the ESF should better tailor responses to our changing societies. The funds should be simplified, and the European Commission and Member States should better communicate the way the ESF has benefitted people over time. Luk Zelderloo, Secretary General of the European Association for Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities, a member of Social Platform, shared how the ESF acted as a lifeline for people with disabilities during the financial crisis by supporting social services, such as rehabilitation, employment and education.

Secondly, partnership must be a central principle of the ESF. Beneficiaries should be engaged in a meaningful, sustainable and effective way, throughout the whole funding process. Engaging users both boosts legitimacy and improves the quality of the services. We also need to mobilise civil society organisations that are closest to people in vulnerable situations that also have the most difficulty in accessing the funds, in order for the ESF to reach those most in need and often left behind.

Thirdly, supporting social innovation is one of the main way the ESF can go beyond investing in people and also contribute to creating a society of common good.

To conclude, a European Commission official made the interesting remark that “the obstacle is not the ESF regulation itself but a rigid interpretation of it, we first need to ask ourselves if our practices are really contributing to helping those we should support”. Asking if we are helping people is a different question than asking if we are spending ESF money, and asking if we are following the rules is a different question than if we are reaching our milestones,one of the speakers pointed out. Calling for managing authorities of EU funds to involve civil society organisations to best ensure that the money reaches those most in need is an important goal of ours. In autumn 2018 the European Commission will present its first proposal for the next period of the ESF, starting in 2020. It is therefore now time to ask ourselves what funding regulation we would like to see in the future.