Since the 1970s, Swedish research assistance has focused on building research capacity in developing countries, in order to strengthen the independence of these countries. But international cooperation is no longer just about solidarity - it is about common survival. Therefore, Sweden needs to rethink research and development assistance, and seriously bring the global challenges to the research agenda, writes researcher David Nilsson.
When the UN General Assembly adopted the global goals for sustainable development last year, the game plan for international development cooperation was changed. In previous decades, there has been talk that poor countries need aid to "catch up", but Agenda 2030 - of which the global goals are a part - is at least as much about change in richer countries. This change requires political will, but also knowledge. Agenda 2030 opens up a completely new way of thinking and acting in the field of research. So how long will it take before the token falls down?
For over 50 years, Sweden as part of international development cooperation has provided support for research around the world. The model for research aid has been more or less unchanged since 1975 when SAREC, the former Swedish aid authority for research collaboration, was formed. Research aid rests firmly on three cornerstones: building research capacity in developing countries; funding of research in areas relevant to developing countries and support for and development of the Swedish academic resource base.
Lack of collaboration with the Swedish research councils
Over the years, the emphasis has been on building research capacity in developing countries. When SAREC was suddenly closed down in 1995 and Sida took over responsibility for research assistance, it looked on the surface as a major change, but operations continued according to the same model. Partner countries and partner organizations have come and gone; Thematic orientations and forms of cooperation have followed the trends in development assistance and evaluations have led to adjustments, but the emphasis on capacity building in developing countries has remained.
Undoubtedly, the SAREC model was thoroughly developed. The inquiry that during the years 1971-1973 drew up the guidelines for research assistance consisted of some of the most prominent people in development and research at the time. But what was it like when you reasoned? First and foremost, they wanted to build up development research as part of development assistance rather than as part of the larger Swedish research agenda. Research aid was to contribute to development in the poor countries, and collaboration with the Swedish research councils was therefore given secondary importance.
To reason like that was not a matter of course at this time. The OECD, the UN and the World Bank all said that both a change in national research agendas in the North and support for capacity building in the South were needed. Sweden chose to invest in the latter. The Swedish line was clear: knowledge is power and only by building up its own research capacity can poor countries gain power over their situation.
Global challenges require global action
So how does that reasoning stand today? Compared to 1973, the world looks different to say the least. When the Cold War ended, the geopolitical playing field changed; for Sweden as a small non-aligned country, as well as for many developing countries. With the accession to the EU in 1995, Sweden was able to begin to influence EU aid, but at the same time our ability to pursue our own foreign policy line diminished. Low- and middle-income countries are today connected to each other in new ways through south-south cooperation, trade and direct investment. But above all, it is the global challenges that have changed in nature.
Today we know that without increased international cooperation, we do not have a chance to successfully deal with cross-border and crucial issues such as climate change, water scarcity, migration and security. It is no longer just about solidarity - it is about common survival. The original idea of Swedish research aid - to strengthen the intellectual and scientific independence of developing countries - is clearly outdated in a world where we are becoming increasingly dependent on each other.
The policy for Global Development (PGU) has also not led to a reorientation of the Swedish research agenda. As the State Treasury has pointed out, PGU has largely failed because the policy lacks clear ownership. Several research councils in Sweden are increasingly funding research relating to global challenges, but no strong will for increased global collaboration with the South can be seen in Swedish research policy. Now we need to rethink research and development assistance.
Change development aid and research policy
Agenda 2030 is a big step in the right direction. Research is included in several of the 17 global goals. Objective 9.5 speaks, for example, of strengthening research and innovation to meet global challenges, especially in poor countries. In Sweden, research on the global challenges needs to be seriously incorporated into research policy. Through development assistance, Sweden can continue to support the building of research capacity in certain developing countries, but the focus must be much more clearly on co-operation around the global goals, both in the North and the South.
The time is ripe for a conversation about how Sweden best contributes to research to meet common global challenges. In a study that Sverker Sörlin and I do for the Expert Group for Development Aid Analysis (EBA) in 2016, we take a closer look at just this. During Development Research Conference In Stockholm, 22-24 August, panels will be arranged on the history and future of research. In these talks, we need to look beyond the year 2030.
If we achieve the first of the global goals, we will have eradicated absolute poverty in the world in 14 years. But a sustainable development within the framework of what our planet can handle, we will have to fight for much longer than that. In that struggle, we are as dependent on low-income countries as these countries are dependent on us. Let us therefore think new about Sweden and global research - if the token falls down.