Jenny Wickman at SEI interviews SweDev Programme Director about her research on governance of development aid.
Janet Vähämäki has been with SEI since 2019 and runs a team of researchers specializing in development and aid policy. Janet is also the Director of the Swedish Development Research Network (SweDev), whose secretariat is hosted by SEI. Her research concerns the governance of development aid and understanding trust patterns in development management.
On 7 December 2021, Vähämäki participated in the “Development assistance in a new era” seminar in Gothenburg, Sweden. The focus was on what difference development aid can do in countries that are becoming increasingly authoritarian and the event took place at the Swedish Forum for Human Rights, the largest annual forum on human rights in Scandinavia. More than 2000 participants from non-governmental organizations, universities, businesses and authorities participated in various seminars and workshops.
Based on your research, what do you see as the most important focus areas when it comes to development aid for 2022?
Due to the pandemic and the climate crisis, the poverty situation in the world has worsened radically. Since the pandemic, we have regressed five years when it comes to the number of people living in extreme poverty and as many as 100 million people currently belong to that category. Parallel to that, more and more countries are becoming authoritarian and we see increased inequalities between the rich and poor.
Simultaneously, there is an ongoing debate in countries such as Sweden about a possible reduction of the aid budget. The discussion revolves a lot around a so-called effectiveness rationale: if we cannot know and measure the results of aid, then aid should be cut. However, since development problems and their solutions are so complex, achieving results requires taking risks, being flexible, and building and upholding trustful relations. It is not always possible to provide measurable results of aid and a lack of results and information does not mean that aid is not important or ineffective. Results are often only visible after many years of aid work or sometimes even after the completion of projects. Many aid workers tell me today that they spend more time on fulfilling obligations such as completing results measurements and can therefore spend less time in the field working on actual development problems. Furthermore, a recent SweDev study shows that aid workers experience that they do not have time to read research findings and put research into use in practice. This is problematic. I think the current situation in the world requires urgent action, an aid administration that learns from existing knowledge and adapts it to different contexts and that we coming from a rich country continue showing our solidarity with the world’s poorest.
What kind of setup is required to ensure that development aid goes to those in need, in dictatorships or authoritarian countries or in countries where corruption is prevalent?
Good collaboration with organizations that have good local knowledge, connections and contacts. However, building up state institutions is crucial for achieving stability in a long-term perspective, so there needs to be a combination of efforts.
What do the expectations look like from people in need?
People have a lot of faith in aid organizations and expect them to stay and support them in standing up for their rights and needs. When development aid is suddenly withdrawn due to changing political agendas, it is the people who suffer. People in authoritarian countries and fragile states are often extremely dependent on aid funding and may not have other alternatives if aid is withdrawn. If one donor country decides to withdraw from a country, there is often a process to find other donors who can continue supporting the projects. Sometimes it is possible, but new relationships are not built so quickly. I have myself worked in both Guinea-Bissau and Honduras, two countries where Sweden withdrew its aid relationships. In both countries, the poverty situation worsened after Sweden’s withdrawal. This was perhaps not only due to the Swedish decision, but it could have contributed to it.
How do you deal with development aid to countries that are authoritarian or unstable, but in acute need of aid?
Again, the long-term perspective is vital. The flexibility and the capacity to act swiftly are fundamental, but in order to do so, one must have sufficient time to establish trust and build strong relationships with people, communities and local stakeholders. Working with development aid in countries where corruption and bribery are prevalent and where the government is authoritarian is complex and not as straightforward or black and white as some may imagine.
Has development aid changed over the years? What do you see going forward?
A reduction in aid volumes is a trend that we see in many countries and my research shows that there have been cyclical fluctuations every 10–12 years in Sweden when it comes to aid. Every 10–12 years, the aid debate becomes more critical and there is increased questioning on the efficiency of aid funding, which results in a greater focus to measure results. For the first time since 1968, when the Swedish parliament agreed on a principle that 1% of our GDP should go to international development aid, the 1% goal risks a substantial decrease. The centre-right Moderate Party has suggested a reduction to 0.7% of GDP, while the populist Sweden Democrats have suggested that it should be halved to 50% of the current volume. The amount is still being negotiated between the opposition parties. However, if a large drop goes through and the current opposition wins the forthcoming elections in 2022, it will have far-reaching consequences for poor people in aid recipient countries.
What is the reason behind that trend, according to you?
There are several reasons for the trend we’re observing right now. Many donor countries are more inward-looking and focusing on domestic issues and there are doubts regarding the efficiency of development aid to countries that may be authoritarian or struggle with corruption.
It’s important to understand that a long-term perspective of building and establishing trustful relationships is vital when it comes to development aid: a short-term perspective risks inefficiency.
What is your main takeaway from the seminar?
The main takeaway is that parallel to the worsened poverty situation, 68% of the world’s population live in authoritarian regimes compared to 48% in 2010. The 2030 Agenda promises “more peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence” with attention to democratic governance, rule of law, access to justice and personal security (in Sustainable Development Goal 16), so we’re very far from that as the situation looks right now and we need to step up our ambitions when it comes to development aid.
This article has also been published at SEI.
Written by Jenny Wickman, Press and Communications Officer at Stockholm Environment Institute.