Introduction to the European Union’s Projects in the Horn of Africa

17 Jun 2021 – Written by Lena Raballand


  • Historically, the Horn of Africa has been an extremely volatile region, plagued by terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab, genocide, and political coups.

  • Evaluating the success of the EU’s projects in the region leads to the conclusion that while the European Union contributes broad efforts to provide aid in the Horn of Africa in a vast number of sectors such as education, employment and infrastructure, making progress in this region of instability and conflict is difficult.

  • Concrete achievements can be seen such as in the EU’s efforts against piracy in Somalia, although critics of international aid raise important questions as to the sustainability of the EU’s efforts.

  • Evidently, it seems too early in the process of rebuilding the region to meaningfully evaluate what long-term impact the European Union’s efforts will have on the Horn of Africa. 


While the analysis on the European Union (EU) is often focused on the power dynamics within the Union or the gridlock concerning the relationship between London and Brussels, five years after the British voted to leave the EU, the Union’s role and heavy presence outside the boundaries of the 27 Member States is much less discussed. Therefore, to take the discussion outside the typical boundaries of discourse, we will consider the EU’s development projects in the Horn of Africa. To do so, we will explain the situation on the ground and the EU’s projects. We will conclude with an opening into the academic and political debate on aid effectiveness in the region.

The stake of considering the EU’s ambition in development aid is to understand the EU’s motives to get involved in a complicated region where the competition between local and international actors and their interests is ever-growing. Per Ursu and van den Berg, “the Horn’s location at the crossroads of trade and conflict has transformed the region into a major theatre where governments, movements and political groups…have sought to intervene in the internal affairs of the area’” (Clingendael Institute, 2018, p. 1). Certain countries see the region as an opportunity to extend or grow their spheres of influence, such Iran’s forty-year presence as it has aimed to “expand its influence in sub-Saharan Africa … to break out from its political isolation in the Middle East and internationally” (Lefebvre, 2019, p. 133), or Turkey’s more recent push to get involved with President Erdogan’s aims for a “neo-Ottoman’ revival” (Vertin, 2019). For others, the motivation is laying hands on the Horn’s resources. For example, China’s presence in the Horn serves’ China’s “quest for natural resources to fuel China’s economic boom” (Clingendael Institute, 2018, p. 2). Moreover, involvement in the Horn can mean establishing a strategic advantage near Europe and the Gulf. To secure this advantage, the Gulf States (Qatar, Saudia Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates) have “proliferated military installations and ports and increased military and economic aid” (Mahmood, 2020) in the region.

It is undoubtedly one of the European Union’s incentives to get involved in such a region is to contain threats such as drug markets, weapon and arms trade, and the trafficking of people before they reach the European borders.

I. The Horn of Africa: the reality facing the European Union

To start, the term “Horn of Africa” refers to the region in Eastern Africa facing the Arabian Peninsula. It is a region with wide access to the sea with coasts to the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean, and traversed by the Nile and the Blue and Yellow Nile. It is home to approximately 185 million people (The World Bank, 2021c) and composed of the states Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan (World Bank, 2021c). While Kenya and Uganda are also included in some definitions, we will omit them from our analysis, as the EU’s efforts in these two countries differ vastly due to the radically different political, economic, and security situations.

Evidently, the situation facing the European Union is not a simple one. As de Wall summarises, the Horn of Africa has been the stage for “interstate wars and civil wars; international military interventions and maritime piracy; genocidal massacres and non-violent popular uprisings. It has had three major territorial wars and three secessions” (de Waal, 2015, p. 37).

To illustrate, the average life expectancy in the Horn is only 62.6 years; 67 in Ethiopia, 66 in Eritrea, 57 in Somalia, 65 in Sudan, and 58 in South Sudan (The World Bank, 2021b). In comparison, this is only 9 years higher than the lowest life expectancy in the world (53 years in the Central African Republic), and 22.5 years less than the highest (85 years in Japan). Looking at another indicator of development, access to electricity also shows the grim reality of life for many in the Horn of Africa. The average proportion of the population with access to electricity is 39.04%; 48.3% in Ethiopia, 50.4% in Eritrea, 36.0% in Somalia, 53.8% in Sudan, and South Sudan with the lowest percentage in the world with 6.7% (The World Bank, 2021a). In comparison, in the European Union, 100% of the population has access to electricity. The average in the Horn of Africa is also below the average given to the UN’s classification of “least developed countries” with 52.8% (The World Bank, 2021a).

II. The EU’s programmes in the region

The EU’s programmes in the region are mainly administered through two funds; the European Development Fund and the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (2021) was established in 2015 “to address the root causes of instability, forced displacement, and irregular migration and to contribute to better migration management”. Around 89% of the contributions come from the EU, and approximately 11% from the EU Member States and other donors (ibid.). While the EU Emergency Trust Fund is specific to Africa, this is not the case for the European Development Fund, which serves as the European Union’s central fund to provide support to African countries and countries worldwide.

A.    Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country (European Commission, 2021b), which achieved independence from Italy in 1947, stability has not been easy, through events such as a deadly famine in 1984-1985 “which devasted much of the country” (BBC News, 2020) or the never-ending conflict with neighbour countries such as Eritrea.

Presently, Ethiopia is destabilised by a re-emergence of regional uprising as states within the federal state system have resumed power struggles. In November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops into Tigray to combat the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which he deemed responsible for a  “traitorous attack on federal army camps in Tigray” (Aljazeera, 2021). This intervention led to killing on both sides, and in November 2020, the United Nations warned of potential war crimes in the Tigray region (Aljazeera, 2021). Since 2020, the situation has not been resolved. It has been reported  “thousands of people, if not tens of thousands, are estimated to have been killed in the conflict, with nearly two million displaced and some 4.5 million in need of food assistance” (Aljazeera, 2021).

The EU’s programs in the country have tried to not only target insecurity but support  “sustainable agriculture and food security, mainly targeting vulnerable population groups, health, to improve the national health system and its access, infrastructures (mainly roads and energy) for economic transformation and to fight climate change” (European Commission,  2021b). However, recently this support, representing nearly €90M in aid, has been suspended due to the conflict in Tigray (Marks, 2020). With this suspension, the EU  aims to pressure the Ethiopian government to allow “immediate, unconditional, unrestricted and unimpeded humanitarian access to all areas in Tigray to respond to the dramatic humanitarian situation” (Marks, 2020). This could detrimentally leave projects on the ground without the necessary funding required to bring about change and stability in Ethiopia, and it is unclear when the EU’s funding will return.

B.     Eritrea

Eritrea has seen internal and external violence, which has fuelled insecurity in the country. Annexed by Ethiopia in 1962, then only regaining its independence through a vote in 1993    (BBC News,  2018a), the clash with Ethiopia has had devastating effects on the Eritreans, as from 1998 to 2000, “Eritrean-Ethiopian border clashes turned into a full-scale war killing around 70,000 people” (ibid.) as well as every sector of their country. Positively, the situation with Ethiopia has improved and in 2018, both countries were able to formally end the state of war.

Progress abroad did not mean progress all around. In June 2014, the UN Human Rights Council reported that “approximately 6% of the population had fled the country over repression and poverty” (BBC News, 2018a). In 2016, a UN inquiry found Eritrea to have committed crimes against humanity against its own population in 1991 when “Eritrean authorities took control of Eritrean territory” to “instil fear, deter opposition … and ultimately control the Eritrean civilian population”. These crimes included “enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts” (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2016).

The EU’s involvement in Eritrea is recent and only dates back to July 2018. The focus is clearly on economic integration as “under this renewed cooperation between the EU and Eritrea, the immediate priority for Eritrea is to develop its trade corridors, particularly with Ethiopia, to enhance regional economic integration” (European Commission, 2021a.) As detailed by the European Commission in its new Development Cooperation Strategy for  2019/20, we can see “the 4 closely interrelated priorities have been identified and discussed: development of infrastructure and energy (€125 million), job creation in the agricultural sector (€30 million), economic governance (€5 million), and promotion of Eritrean culture and heritage (€15 million)” (European Commission, 2021a.)

C.    Somalia

Even within a volatile region, Somalia has somewhat hit the pinnacle of instability. It lacked any central government or State until 2012 and has and continues to be plagued by the presence of the Somali Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab has not only destabilised Somalia but has brutalised the region. In 2010, they “coordinated suicide bombings killed seventy-four people in the Ugandan capital of Kampala” (Felter et al., 2021) after Uganda started “leading the African Union peacekeeping mission (Amisom) in Mogadishu,” the capital of Somalia. Kenya was hit twice when “in 2013, al-Shabab fighters claimed responsibility for an attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed 67 people, and in 2015 the group killed 148 in an attack on a university in the city of Garissa” (Felter et al., 2021).

Al-Shabaab continues to have a strong political and geographical control on large parts of Somalia due to benefiting from “several sources of income … including other terrorist groups; piracy; kidnapping; and extortion of local businesses, farmers, and aid groups, among others” (Felter et al., 2021).

Crucially, progress has been made in terms of governance in Somalia. As reported by the Delegation of the European Union to Somalia (2018a, p. 2), “after 25 years of state disintegration, conflict, and continuous peoples’ displacement, Somalia is showing timid but promising signs of increased security and stabilisation, coupled to the formation of recognised state institutions, gradual adherence to democratic processes, and the start of economic recovery”. In 2012, it was the first time a “federal structure” (ibid., p. 3) was achieved. Since then, a World Bank paper has shown “there has been some progress in federalism. Federal institutions are being established, and State formation has progressed with the emergence of the Federal Member States (FMS) of Galmudug, Hirshabelle, Jubbaland, Puntland and South West” (Cloutier et al., 2021, p. 3). In 2017, Somalia was able to start building back its relationship with the international community with the signing of the New Partnership for Somalia (Cloutier et al., 2021, p. 3).

Nonetheless, drastic strides still need to be taken, which the European Union aims to support in terms of security and governance. As the World Bank points out, “with the exception of Puntland and Somaliland, the FMS do not have full control of their territories, in some cases failing to provide the most basic element of the social contract – that of security” (Cloutier et al., 2021, p. 5).

As such, the EU’s involvement in Somalia is rightfully focused on security, but this is defined widely as its objective is to  “rebuild the state, improve security and stability and reduce poverty” (European Commission, 2021c). To meet this objective, the European Union is focused on three missions. Firstly, the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) in Somalia supports the Somali National Army (SNA) to bolster its capabilities to face security threats within the territory. This support is given through trainings of personnel, carrying out “courses to train future trainers (Train the Trainers Program) and conducting its advising and mentoring role in favour of Somali Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Somali National Army (SNA) personnel” (European Union Training Mission in Somalia, 2021). Secondly, there is the EUCAP Somalia mission which supports the Somali police forces and maritime forces. Thirdly, in terms of security, the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR), with Operation ATALANTA launched in 2008, continues to provide Somalia with support to control piracy off the Somali coast.

D.    South Sudan

South Sudan, as reported by the European Commission, “is part of the group of Least Developed Countries.” In that context, “the development challenges for the newest country in the world are huge, aggravated by the legacies of war, frequent local violence and lack of modern infrastructures” (European Commission, 2021e).

In 2012, ethnic clashes in the Jonglei state between rival ethnic groups led to around 100,000 people fleeing (BBC News, 2018c). In 2013, South Sudan was plunged into a civil war between President Salva Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar, as Riek Machar was “accused of plotting of overthrowing” President Salva Kiir (BBC News, 2018c). In 2017, the country endured a grave famine in what the UN described as “a man-made catastrophe caused by civil war and economic collapse” (ibid.). A solution to end the conflict was only brought about in 2018 as “President Kiir [signed] a power-sharing agreement with Riek Machar and other opposition groups in a bid to end the civil war” (BBC News, 2018c).

The EU has been able to fund South Sudan and has conducted several projects in different sectors through the EU Emergency Trust Fund amounting “to approximately € 250 million” (European Commission, 2021e).

E.     Sudan

Sudan is the third-largest country in Africa and, in a common narrative for the region, has struggled with stability marked by frequent political coups such as the one led by Jaafar Numeiri in 1969 or from the Sudanese Communist Party in 1971 (BBC News, 2019). The country also endured a civil war in 1983. In 1985, it achieved the almost impossible and became the first country to ever be suspended from the International Monetary Fund as it “failed to pay the interest due on its debt to the fund itself” (De Waal, 2015, 71).

The Darfur crisis has also created instability. The crisis started in 2003 between the Sudanese government and the Darfur region found in the west of Sudan. By 2008, it was estimated by the UN that 300,000 people had died because of the war (Copnall, 2013). The following year, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) “for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Darfur” (Copnall, 2013). This unsuccessfully addressed the conflict as, by 2010, al-Bashir was subject to a second arrest warrant by the ICC, this time on charges of genocide (BBC News, 2019).  As of 2019, the conflict in Darfur has driven two million people from their homes and killed more than 200,000 officially (BBC News, 2019).

Moreover, in July 2011, Sudan split into two, with South Sudan breaking way. Tensions have remained between the two states as  “two rounds of north-south civil war” have cost “the lives of 1.5 million people” (BBC News, 2019).

The European Union’s position within Sudan is difficult as “Sudan has not ratified the revised Cotonou Agreement. Hence, the country is ineligible to receive funds from the European Development Fund” (European Commission, 2021d). However, this has not meant the European Union has not supported Sudan. As reported by the European Commission, “the EU has provided €160 billion for the period 2016-2019 which have been implemented through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa” (European Commission, 2021d). Going forward, the EU plans to extend its implication as it is currently “drafting a short-term strategy related to the democratic transition in Sudan” (European Commission, 2021d) with Sudan.


III. Considering the effectiveness of the EU efforts

Even though the European Union has attempted to provide aid to the states in the Horn of Africa, it is difficult to accurately assess how successful the European Union has been in countering deep issues such as poverty, economic collapse, civil war, and terrorist groups.

A.    Achievements

One concrete achievement the European Union has been able to achieve is in its efforts against piracy in Somalia. Piracy was an acute problem in Somalia from around 2008 to 2018. For example, through much of 2010, Somali pirates were responsible for almost half of the 289 piracy incidents on the world’s seas (Topping, 2010). In that year alone, pirates boarded 128 ships, used guns in 137 incidents and knives in 66 and took 773 hostages (Topping, 2010).

Thirteen years down the line, the situation has drastically improved due to the heavy presence of national naval forces such as from the United States. The European Union’s efforts through missions like EUNAFOR and the European Union’s Naval Force Operation Atalanta have helped the numbers of attacks and hijackings to drop (Reva, 2018) and piracy is “no longer acute” (Delegation of the European Union to Somalia, 2018, p. 5). However, it is certain that the European Union must not ease up on its efforts as the risks of a revival of the issue are very much still present as the EU recognises that “there is a risk that should these mitigating measures no longer be in place, piracy might re-emerge” (Delegation of the European Union to Somalia, 2018a, p. 5). 

Another achievement is the stimulation of economic growth which would have been lower in the absence of aid, along with greater rates of poverty (McGillivray, 2021). This is supported, for example, when we consider Somalia and Somalis are heavily dependent on aid and remittances with the latter represent 23% of household income (Delegation of the European Union to Somalia, 2018a). The European Union’s funding indeed leads to concrete changes in the Horn, whether it be ensuring children are provided an education, supporting essential infrastructure like roads are paved to protect trade within the region, or providing support to the agricultural sectors.

B.     Criticisms

Even if the European Union has concrete positives impact in a vast number of sectors, academic and political literature still voices concerns and objections.

As the European Union is funnelling vast amounts of funds into target areas in the Horn of Africa, academics point to the lack of long-term solutions. Dambisa Moyo, Zambian economist and best-selling author of the book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (2009), takes schooling as an example. She highlights “aid-supported scholarships have certainly helped send African girls to school (never mind that they won’t be able to find a job in their own countries once they have graduated). This kind of aid can provide band-aid solutions to alleviate immediate suffering, but by its very nature cannot be the platform for long-term sustainable growth” (Moyo, 2009).

Reva (2018) backs up this point by examining piracy in Somalia. He finds “the conditions needed for long-term solutions to piracy remain absent. At the core of the problem is Somalia’s dependency on the presence of foreign navies and international support. Somalia doesn’t have the capacity to handle the issue without foreign help”. While he is correct in pointing to the strong presence of foreign navies still present in the waters off the Somali coast, he overlooks the EU’s specific efforts through its three missions’ (EUTM, EUCAP, and Operation ATALANTA) in providing the Somali National Army and its police and maritime police with the capabilities to tackle the issue themselves.

While these two academics raise great questions, they fail to dive deeper into the impact on schooling and piracy if the international aid were to disappear. The long-term sustainability of international aid is certainly unclear, but the current state of deep insecurity in the Horn means development efforts are only at the beginning. The European Union is not even in the position yet to consider what could be once aid is cut off. For example, Somalia is at the very start of its journey to combat piracy and terrorist organisations, provide a decent livelihood to its population, and achieve a certain level of stability where the country can afford to be independent of international aid without collapsing into civil war and famine the moment the support is gone. Moreover, Reva and Moyo raise important points in questioning the long-term sustainability of relying on international funds. However, they fail to consider that international funds were not always present, such as in Somalia, which went through a period of 20 years without international funding, during which the issues of piracy and education were not resolved or even improved without the presence of international aid.


To summarise, while the attention, whether it be political or in the media, is often on the internal issues of the European Union, this ignores the Union’s real presence across the globe. In recent years, the EU has gotten involved in the Horn of Africa amongst a growing number of actors and interests to mitigate the risks of dangers such as drugs, arms trafficking, and human trafficking transiting through the Horn of Africa from reaching its borders. While the EU is determined to bring about change in the Horn, it is evident that the situation on the ground is extremely difficult. The region has seen one violent conflict after another, civil wars, crimes against humanity, the collapse of governments, and a real sense of hopelessness. Faced with this reality, the EU has adopted a global approach and, through this lens, aims to tackle issues not only from a thematic approach but from an approach that can target insecurity at the root. Evaluating this success is difficult, as the main hurdle is time. While academics debate on a theoretical level the legitimacy or capabilities of international aid, the reality is that it may be simply too early to really understand to what extent the European Union is truly achieving its aims in the Horn.





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Recommended citation:

Raballand, L. (2021) Introduction to the European Union’s Projects in the Horn of Africa, IDRN, 17 June. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].