In connection with Löfven's visit to Africa, a major strategy process is now being initiated within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sida, which aims to review Sweden's regional development cooperation in sub-Saharan Africa. The process should be guided by a greater focus on issues of national capacity, better coordination and a re-prioritization of excessive support for regional organizations. That is the opinion of Fredrik Söderbaum, professor at the University of Gothenburg.
It has never happened before that a Swedish prime minister attended one of the African Union (AU) summits. It is therefore very interesting that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven attended the AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at the end of January. Löfven's participation seems to indicate a return to a broader Swedish involvement with Africa in contrast to the bourgeois government's narrower emphasis on Swedish investments.
Sweden supports both national and regional development in Africa. However, regional aid has received too little attention and understanding. It is also too poorly integrated with Swedish national development assistance as well as multilateral development assistance. Continental and regional cooperation play a key role in addressing Africa's crucial challenges and problems, such as peace and security, environment, energy, economic development, trade, health, education and migration. It is unlikely that these problems can be solved without improved regional cooperation. Löfven's journey is highly relevant because AU is undoubtedly the most important arena in Africa for discussing these issues. A reasonable hope is that Löfven and Swedish decision-makers can gradually build up an increased understanding of the opportunities, challenges and problems that the AU and the related regional economic communities (REGs) are grappling with.
Stefan Löfven's journey to the AU summit coincides with the start of a comprehensive strategy process within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sida, which aims to revise the Swedish strategy for regional development cooperation with the AU and other regional organizations and actors in sub-Saharan Africa. As early as tomorrow, Tuesday 3 February, Sida will organize two seminars on regional cooperation and integration in Africa. The two seminars are part of a larger analytical project within Sida on the political economy of African regionalism and the role of development aid. This project indicates a welcome increase in ambition from the Swedish side and has also been welcomed not only by other donors but also by AU and African regional actors. The following three points should guide the work to achieve a better Swedish Africa policy and a more effective Swedish regional strategy:
Link regional and national solutions. For 10-15 years, Sweden and other donors have invested huge sums in strengthening the institutional capacity of AU, REG's and other intergovernmental regional organizations in Africa. Many important results have been achieved, but often the effects on development are unclear, which has led to many donors as well as African actors becoming increasingly uncertain about the benefits of these organizations. Research shows that donors give too much priority to building up the regional organizations' headquarters instead of strengthening the national capacity of the individual African countries in order to better implement and participate in regional cooperation. Strengthening national capacity can be said to constitute the “missing link” in African regional cooperation and Sweden can and should act to better synchronize national and regional strategies and solutions.
2. Develop Sweden's role for regional coordination. Regional support is characterized by weak coordination between donors as well as with African recipients, with inefficient use of resources as a result. This is striking given the importance of coordinating aid for national aid. Although Sweden has become somewhat more active in this area in recent years, much more needs to be done indefinitely. Sweden has the potential to achieve increased coordination with other donors with relatively simple means, as well as with African governments and non-governmental organizations operating regionally in Africa. But this is not done by itself but requires a better Swedish strategy, better connection between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sida and increased resources for dialogue and coordination in the field.
Stop imitating the EU as a model. Another challenge for Swedish politics is to go beyond the excessive focus on AU and REG. The previous government's preference for AU and REG has led to a hidden role for private market participants and non-governmental organizations in the Swedish regional strategy. It is highly relevant to ask why Swedish regional aid should place so much emphasis on top-down and bureaucratized regionalism that is dominated by African governments when Swedish national aid places so much emphasis on private market participants and non-governmental organizations?
The strong Swedish emphasis on state and top-down forms of regionalism with weak participation by private actors and non-governmental organizations is related to the fact that the EU has become overly important for how Swedish decision-makers understand the African integration process. The imitation of the EU is clearly seen in many Swedish policy documents. The logic works in both directions. On the one hand, Swedish (and European) decision-makers are looking for institutional solutions for Africa in the European experience. On the one hand, it is rational for representatives of African regional organizations to emulate the EU because there is a wealth of funding for precisely such institutional solutions.
There is a diversity of more decentralized and network-based forms of regional cooperation in Africa that are often more effective and inclusive compared to AU and REGs. Research also shows that AUs and REGs can sometimes have negative effects and are even abused for narrow economic and political interests. Sweden and other donors must better understand when and how regional cooperation should be conducted via AU and REG and when other regional actors and mechanisms are more effective and relevant. This requires improved knowledge of the African political economy and of regional cooperation and integration.
Overall, Sweden has good opportunities to find new and better solutions for how Swedish support for regional cooperation in Africa can become more creative, effective and coordinated. Inspiration for this should be sought in how national aid is conducted and in discussions with African governments but also with other donors, private actors and non-governmental organizations. Last but not least, you can with simple means gain a number of insights from a deeper commitment with scientific research.
Fredrik Söderbaum, Professor at the Department of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg