Photo: Stefan Håkansson.
The Sherwood Way (TSW): For many people, the Swedish cooperation is a model, but what is happening with it and what consequences could it have internationally?
Anna Tibblin (A.T.): When the Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine became a fact, last year, we had a social democratic government in Sweden. It had only been in place for a few months because it used to be a coalition with the Green Party, who had the portfolio of development, cooperation, and environment. Then there was a conflict, the Green Party left, and there was a social democratic majority government.
When the war started and the EU took the initiative to receive the refugees, with the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive, the Social Democrat government in Sweden decided that they would fund the reception of refugees from Ukraine over the development budget. It happened in 2015 and before, but this was huge. At the same time, the same government was discussing subsidies for, for example, the cost of electricity, the cost of petrol, all of these price increases that we could see following the financial effects of the war in Ukraine. It was the first time that the Social Democrats clearly attacked the development aid budget.
Just before that the same social democratic government also started talking about the need to bind the development budget or to condition aid to countries with their willingness to receive migrants. This started already before the war and it was ripening, and why is this? Because last year Sweden was in election mode. What happened in civil society was that we have a very good collaboration, so, we came together to argue both about this condition. When the government then said that they took the decision to finance the reception of refugees, the implications for civil society had different implications on different budget lines.
But just as an example, the largest budget line that funds civil society organizations was cut with 38% immediate. Last year was disastrous because this decision was taken by the government in April: it was on the same budget for the same year. Everything, all of Swedish development corporation, it just came to stand still. Why do you have to take it from the development budget? Obviously, because it was an election year and because the Swedish Democrats, which is the most right-wing party, these guys have their own office inside the government.
Swedish civil society managed to organize major protests in country, a lot of debate articles, a lot of discussions with politicians, etc. We used our cooperative companies in the private sector, etc. And that budget that’s from 38 % was reduced to 10%. I am absolutely convinced that our work as civil society organizations together made that happen. At least that was important. The problem was that since everybody had been trying to plan for these big cuts, by the time the government then said “it’s only 10%, you’d still lost so much time”. That was in August.
In September, the elections, the social democrats lost, this new conservative government came in and with these Swedish democrats on the inside. Now the Swedish democrats in the party program, they want to cut Swedish development operations with half. The conservative party, “Moderaterna”, they officially want to go to the 0.7 target. And their rhetoric is, of course, Sweden can’t do it on our own. Nobody else is paying this much. We have to be realistic and reasonable, but we will respect the 0.7 target.
The new government comes into power and they have a ministry for development cooperation and foreign trade. It’s a combined ministry. So, they said they’re going to reform the Swedish development cooperation policy, and they call it the reform agenda: we’re going to combine aid and trade, we want less conferences and more food packages. We understand we’re not going to change the party programs, but how do we talk to them? We spent from October all of last year just trying to speak to them. They said, civil society can send us letters, comments, if you will; we’ll come back to you in a consultation process later. But they just ignored us.
That gave some rippling effects in the Swedish society because it is still a large base of Swedes who do care for development cooperation, who will defend its budgets, but who also understand and who feel increased food prices, increased electricity prices, the whole discussion about NATO and all of these things. The priority is lower, but the values are still there. A majority of the Swedish population still defends and believes in a strong development cooperation, but I don’t think a majority of the Swedes will go out and demonstrate on the streets, because in the political rhetoric, when you say we need the money for electricity, etc… it’s just too difficult to get through the noise.
On Tuesday, the 22nd of December, there was a debate in parliament about the aid budget and every single party except these, the most right-wing Swedish Democrats, defended the role of Swedish civil society as a very important actor and an actor in its own right, both to support others, but also in its own right. And they promised we’re not going to cut. On Thursday, the government decision on the budget for 2023 came through, and they’ve cut everything, every single budget line.
I think that’s what we’re still trying to recuperate from. We’re not used to being lied to. We’re used to a system that works even if we don’t agree. But this caught us totally off guard as Swedish civil society. So we’re learning how do you deal with this new political environment when you can’t trust that what you’re told is actually the truth. I understand that this sounds very naive, but this is how we are. So, what happened then? First of all, the 1% goal was sliced, but then there were very drastic cuts. As some examples, Guatemala cut 60%, Myanmar 60%, and then Palestine 40%. And that’s with immediate effect. What do you do with your portfolio when you just lost 60 % of your budget?
The government also cut the country budgets drastically. They also cut the overall appropriation to civil society with 10%. But since we were still fighting with the problems from last year, getting organized in our Excel sheets, and trying to vital budget lines. One is that Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) has this budget line, where you can apply for the own contribution for EU grants. So if you request 10%, you could actually apply from SIDA to cover those 10%. The second thing they removed was like an information grant where you could fund your advocacy people, everything that has to do with general public opinion on development issues, Agenda 2030, all of that stuff. This affected especially smaller Swedish organizations, some have had to close, some have lost half of their staff.
The Swedish development sector at the moment with civil society organizations is in the middle of budget crisis, letting staff go reorganizing and trying to find our feet. There’s no funding available for advocacy and information and so on. It’s only us, bigger ones, who can afford it, but it has to come out of our own funds. At the same time, with the inflation, etc, it’s more expensive than ever to actually do our job. So that’s sort of a summary where we are as an organization. Now the government, there’s still good dialogue among the organizations and there’s a lot of solidarity, but it’s difficult because it’s such an inward, we’re so stuck in just trying to get organized.
The government has held two meetings where they’ve invited, the first one, 60 organizations, the second one about 80 organizations, for a meeting of three hours where anyone who wants to talk could talk, and that was the consultation process. So now we’re waiting for a decision, we’re waiting for a proposal from the government so that we can see what it is they’re going to do, what is the reform agenda, how are they going to do it. And we don’t know more than that because the doors are closed, the dialogue is limited, there is no consultation and that’s it. And there’s very little room in the public debate about it because everything is about the war, climate, NATO, etc.
TSW: There are similarities between what is happening in Sweden and previous debates in the UK and Spain? What implications do you think the Swedish debate about cooperation might have internationally?
A.T. : I think first and foremost it is the signal that you send to the Swedish population and to the rest of the world is that in the time when we’re in the largest crisis globally since the Second World War, Sweden bailouts and says we’re no longer in. I think that is such a strong signal of not only abandoning ship, but also abandoning responsibility, values and seriousness. And then you can ask yourself, what does this government stand to gain from that? Because it’s a conservative government, but it’s also a government interested in the international reputation of Sweden because this big business, does big business want to be embarrassed and so on? So, I think part of it is absolutely politics where you’re prepared to just to get the headline, you throw out the policy. But part of it also actually not understanding that all of these years of development cooperation is also a strong investment in the brand name of Sweden as a business partner. I think it’s sort of like a light bulb now for the business sector.
The second one is when it comes to the new geopolitical situation where our former partners in African countries, for example, feel abandoned, rightfully so. Who’s there to say, don’t vote on Russia? There’s nobody left and Sweden lost that opportunity. Maybe there was no difference you could make, but you could at least be there and try. Now we’ve lost that opportunity as well. Implications are, of course, that others can follow, that it has worsened the global security situation. It’s also the implications are that I think just generally more nationalistic policies will. Well, it’s just open doors, I guess. And I think it was the European Commission in a comment who also said commenting specifically that it was Sweden. We lost one of the good ones. All opportunities and dialogue in the future, all of these different things has that credibility is lost. In some cases, it might be possible to repair it maybe, but then have to start working now. We see no such interest from this government.
TSW: How do you think this crisis in Swedish cooperation may affect the progress in the debate on feminisms and «Shift the power»? How can those who care about Swedish cooperation from the outside help?
A.T.: I think when it comes to feminism and losses, the previous government launched the feminist foreign policy. And I think that’s also something that was also controversial within Sweden. But over time, it was something that I think a majority of the Swedish population also was proud of. So that also made it easier for Swedish development corporations to have that leverage working with gender transformative approaches, etcetera, really pushing development cooperation in that sense
This new government has scrapped the feminist foreign policy and says, we’re still very “yes”, we like to work with gender equality, but we don’t like etiquette. That sort of answers the whole question that we’ve gone from at least an ambition. And it could have been good or bad content, but it was an ambition. We have said we no longer have ambition and I think that, again, it shows that when you take off, if you’ve taken on a shirt of leadership and you take it off, you’re saying it to others, it’s not important. It can have major effects in our partner organizations that we’re taking for leaning towards these policies to be able to advance their agendas and advance the possibilities of, for example, our partner organizations. They no longer have that support and that’s unfortunate.
I think we need to, though, be hopeful and say there are other governments who are pushing these agendas, let’s support them to continue to do so, to the best of their ability, etcetera. As for what you can do in Spain and in other places is to help our government also become aware, criticize us, explain why is this important. Why and how can Sweden make a difference? I think that’s actually the only way for them to listen, is if the criticism is something that can help them to change policy. We’re not going to win back what we have, but we can certainly try to work through something better in the future. And I think the example of Sweden joining NATO is a good one. You can see, if one president in a non-democratic country can have that kind of effect on the whole government of Sweden, imagine what democratic voices could have when it comes to it. So, I think in that sense, we need to help each other.
Watch the full interview here: