The Swedish approach to development

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Long one of the world’s most generous donor countries, Sweden’s approach to development is guided by results, efficiency and transparency. We talk to Hillevi Engström, Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation.

From Stockholm flows a generous stream of development spending, orchestrated by Engström. She and her colleagues oversee an eclectic range of country-specific programs, which seek to end poverty and lift up some of the world’s poorest people.

We need to help create jobs for people in developing countries, and this requires business to be involved.

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.

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.”

Maximizing development impact

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:

  1. Democracy and human rights
  2. Gender equality and the role of women in development
  3. Climate and the environment

“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.”

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.

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 decision to focus on multilateral development cooperation is one that Engström fully endorses, but 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.”

Although Engström and her colleagues are gearing up for a general election this September, the business of government will, of course, continue. “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!”