A Swedish hand up

15 Jul 14
Long one of the world’s most generous donor countries, Sweden’s approach to development is guided by results, efficiency and transparency. Its Minister for International Development Cooperation, Hillevi Engström, tells Susanne Tillqvist about her ongoing mission to help improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest people

By Susanne Tillqvist | 15 July 2014

Long one of the world’s most generous donor countries, Sweden’s approach to development is guided by results, efficiency and transparency. Its Minister for International Development Cooperation, Hillevi Engström, tells Susanne Tillqvist about her ongoing mission to help improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest people

Stockholm in the summer sun — picturesque, bustling, cosmopolitan — is a long way from the world’s developing countries, both geographically and metaphorically. And yet from Sweden’s capital city there flows a hugely generous stream of development spending, orchestrated by the country’s Minister for International Development Cooperation, Hillevi Engström.

From her offices in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, she and her colleagues oversee an eclectic range of countryspecific programs, all of which seek to end poverty and lift up some of the world’s vulnerable people. While in post for less than a year, it is clear that she has wasted little time in getting up to speed. “Sweden enjoys substantial international clout in

the development sector,” she admits. “Money talks, and this is one of the most striking things I’ve recognized since becoming Minister. Everyone wants to have bilateral meetings and discussions in order to get a piece of the cake.”

While no stranger to Sweden’s corridors of power — previously she served as Minister for Employment for three years and continues to serve as her party’s spokesperson on gender issues — she freely admits that she possessed little background knowledge about the sector prior to her appointment last September. “To be honest, I didn’t know much about development and I don’t think many politicians here do,” she says. “If you work on the local level or in Parliament then you have to know a little bit of everything, but development is not very well known. But I really enjoy it and find it fascinating. Really, it comes down to the same policies — jobs, economic growth, law and order — that exist elsewhere in government.”

The Swedish strategy

Development is firmly entrenched in the Swedish Government’s spending program. With cross-party support, it enjoys a protected status that is increasingly rare around the world, with little or no pressure to implement budget cuts. When asked to explain how this has come about, Engström cites the long tradition of development in the country. “It goes back a long time,” she says. “It is also linked to our close partnerships with several NGOs and the church, too, plays a role; when I was visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo recently, I found that Sweden’s good reputation stems from the work of Swedish missionaries there 100 years ago.”

The Swedish approach today is to focus on helping create the conditions that will enable poor people to improve their lives. To reduce poverty as effectively as possible, there is increasing recognition that greater openness and transparency will lead to more successful results. The priorities and policies of recipient countries also underpin the Swedish strategy, one that is demand-driven and one that aims to complement the poverty reduction efforts of developing countries themselves.

With little pressure to reduce spending, Engström’s government has been able to hit its target of 1% of spending on development since coming into office in 2006. “It has been heavily debated but now there is a strong consensus behind it,” she says. “A key reason for this is our very strong economy which, despite the global financial crisis, has grown every year apart from 2008.”

But that doesn’t mean complacency has crept in — anything but. Over the past few years, Sweden has sought to strengthen its approach by concentrating on a smaller group of countries in order to maximize impact. Three thematic priorities have also been identified: democracy and human rights; gender equality and the role of women in development; and climate and the environment. “My predecessor started up a reform agenda, one more driven by results, and one that focuses on fewer countries to boost sustainability,” explains Engström. “We want to make sure we know where our money is going and have introduced a transparency guarantee, where all public documentation is available on the internet and accessible via mobile technology. It’s still a work in progress but we have made huge strides on this agenda.”

She also pinpoints the need for a closer partnership with the private sector and civil society organizations to accelerate progress. “We need to help create jobs for people in developing countries, and this requires business to be  involved,” she says. “Some think we should just be donors — hand over the money and be done — but I think its wiser to invest in jobs and training, as that will make it far more sustainable in the long run. We are also trying to be more flexible. For example, in response to the terrible antihomosexual legislation in Uganda, we are seeking to build alliances with civil society organizations that operate there. Right now, we don’t have funding with its government, but you can’t turn your back completely, because if you abandon everything then the people there will be even more at risk.”

Spreading the word

Much of Sweden’s development funding is deployed through multilateral organizations such as the UN and development banks such as the World Bank Group. “The countries we work with would prefer us just to give them money directly, but this is something we don’t tend to do,” says Engström. “About 45% of our aid goes to UN organizations, and this means we are one of their largest donors. We have negotiations with these organizations where we discuss what we need them to be doing and where they should be focusing, but it’s a two-way dialogue; it’s not like we just hand them the money — we want them to focus on where we think is important.”

The decision to focus on multilateral development cooperation is one that Engström fully endorses — “I think ours is the right moral approach” — but nonetheless it does have its drawbacks. “It doesn’t give us a huge amount of visibility,” she admits. “Sometimes, at the big donor conferences, we have to really fight to put Sweden on the map, even though we are the third- or fourth-biggest donor. At the end of the day, I don’t really care because, of course, the main thing is we help those in need. But, at the same time, it would be nice to be able to demonstrate to the Swedish people where and how we are helping. Other countries and organizations are far more vocal about what they do, but we are discreet — it’s a typical Swedish trait I guess. But I think we can get a better balance, as I want people to know that Sweden is a significant player on this agenda. Maybe it’s time to get the Swedish flag flying alongside some of the projects we fund.”

Such projects are increasingly to be found in Afghanistan — truly a state in need of assistance if ever there was one. With an eight-year plan in place, Sweden’s commitment is clear, though circumstances there remain highly challenging. “We don’t yet have a specific plan for each individual Afghan state, due to our concerns over corruption,” admits Engström. “I’ve been to Afghanistan, and it’s visits like that which are so important, as you get to see for yourself the work that is going on, to meet the people and to hear their stories about what is really happening.”

Asked what has most surprised her about such visits, she says that she has learned how difficult it is. “Development professionals working on the ground don’t have the most glamorous job,” she says. “It is dangerous, and they are working for people who have so many needs, and they have to choose how to prioritize their help, so there is huge pressure on them all the time. They’re doing a tremendous job but it is so challenging, especially in places such as Afghanistan. We currently have a really important role there because, as the military is withdrawing, the needs are increasing. Afghanistan reflects our goals for international development cooperation in several aspects but one in particular, and close to my heart, which is to support the rights for young women to receive education and women´s rights overall. For us, it is important to have a long-term commitment; we don’t want to just be there for a short time and then withdraw. We’ve met the Afghan people and they’ve asked us not to leave them — they want us there for a long time too.”

Still optimistic

Although Engström and her colleagues are gearing up for what promises to be a closely fought general election this coming September, the business of government will, of course, continue. Despite the impending encroachment of opinion polls, campaign visits and television appearances onto her agenda, there seems little chance of Engström taking her eye off the development sector. “I am optimistic about development and the progress we have already made, but there is always more to do,” she says. “I’m only just getting started!”

This feature was  first published in the June edition of EY's Dynamics magazine

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