Olof Palme outside the Riksdag House in 1968 talks to a hunger-striking student from Lund who wants the one percent goal to be reached. Photo: Sven-Erik Sjöberg / DN / TT


Review of "A Dizzying Task - Sweden and Development Aid 1945-1975"

Three Swedish historians have made an impressive effort to document the development of development aid as a new policy area in the years 1945 to 1975. The book addresses several key issues in today's Swedish development aid debate: including the XNUMX% target, the choice of partner countries and Tanzania - the country of broken expectations. Göran Holmqvist, head of department at Sida, discusses some of the book's contributions to us based on today's development collaboration.

A book about Sweden and Aid 1945 to 1975; written by three academic historians; 650 pages of text with over 2000 source references: It sounds like a pure sleeping pill. But it's not!

Instead, it is both an insightful and exciting story about the emergence of a completely new policy area in Sweden, which in a fascinating way reflects its contemporaries. In addition, well written in a pictorial language that invites reading. You really do not fall asleep, even if you, like me, literally read it in the hammock during the holidays. The three authors - Annika Berg, Urban Lundberg and Mattias Tydén - have made an impressive contribution.

As readers, we get to take part in Sweden's first staggering steps towards establishing a state development cooperation, where in the 1950s we were rather lagging behind internationally. This includes the organizational entanglements in development aid's childhood - the Central Committee, the Nordic Investment Bank and Sida - and the recurring and periodically infected tug-of-war between the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance and the emerging development assistance authority. The early investments in family planning are given much attention (forced sterilizations were not the Swedish line), as well as the Bai Bang paper mill in Vietnam (which after all eventually became a successful project) and the support for the liberation movements in southern Africa in the 1970s (where Sweden made a difference but balanced dangerously close to the limit of military assistance). Development cooperation with Tanzania - the ever-recurring rise in the Swedish development aid debate - is given much attention with depictions of many shattered hopes and a few bright spots. The debate on the 1975% target is reflected in detail (with a reluctant Social Democratic government pressured by the opposition to increase aid funding faster), until it is reached in XNUMX, when the book comes to an end. It was fifteen years after the first resolution of the UN General Assembly that stated the one percent target as an international commitment for the rich countries.

In a couple of chapters you can also take part in some fascinating personal portraits: Ulla Lindström, the first Minister for Development Aid, and the only woman in the government, with a strong commitment to the family planning issue (combative and not loved by everyone, not even by Tage Erlander); Olof Palme, the architect behind what is described as the early bible of development aid in the form of Bill 100 in 1962 and with great commitment to the liberation movements in southern Africa (but with less interest in the practice of development aid); Ernst Michanek, Sida's first director general, who probably gets a bit of a heroic halo in the book as a both judgmental and influential official (and greyhound), influential both in Sweden and internationally. Michanek stood for long-term poverty reduction, focus and had insights into the practical challenges of aid, including the importance of aid with broad political and popular support.

This is not a book that drives an individual thesis or lands in any explicit messages to us today. You can read and ponder yourself, which is recommended. But between the lines, one can still discern some messages to us, when the history book is combined with today's development aid debate.

One such is about the choice of partner countries, the so-called country election issue, which has been a recurring issue over the years. A partly infected battle took place here in the early 1970s between the Foreign Ministry's radical U-department and Sida. The radicals at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had landed in the fact that poverty reduction required the choice of partner countries that pursued a progressive development policy (which then became socialist countries such as Vietnam, Mozambique, Cuba and several like-minded people). Sida's Ernst Michanek resisted and emphasized the importance of both focus, long-term perspective and the democracy criterion, but had to give up. To today's eyes, the craze of the early 1970s for these countries seems both naive and dictatorial. But it also feels like an extremely distant time, given how our political parties today are vying to put themselves at the top of the democratic barricades in order to quickly distance themselves from countries where democracy is suffering setbacks. To the extent that Swedish development assistance in many places is completely on the verge of losing contact and opportunities for influence vis-à-vis the governments of the countries where democracy needs to be promoted. A naive fundamentalism in a new guise? I suspect that Ernst Michanek had emphasized the importance of seeing the long-term lines of development.

A perhaps somewhat more pronounced message in the book is about what is called "aid scale problems", which is also reflected in the book's title - A Dizzying Task. The task of alleviating world distress is endless and our small contribution can never be more than a drop in the ocean. This is described as one of the fundamental dilemmas of development aid and the book returns to it time and time again. Between the lines there is probably a hint of despair; a Sweden that has taken water over its head. Here I want to question how the authors describe the problem picture. In fact, most policy areas have a touch of infinity in their ambitions ("good health and education for everyone in Sweden" - the sky is the limit). And the drop in the sea metaphor has the aid in common with almost all good ambitions - "why should I sort at source if no one else does it?". It is simply a matter of problems that need to be solved by joint action, within the framework of some form of implicit or explicit agreement where the burdens are distributed. Development cooperation's response to this is the agreement that rich countries will set aside one percent (initially 0,7 percent) of their GNI for development assistance. The one percent goal is given a lot of space in the book, as is the scale problem, but a little strangely enough without the obvious connection between them being made. In the book, the one per cent target is given much of the character of Swedish affairs that are the subject of domestic political battles, as is also the case in today's development aid debate. Tage Erlander was on the trail when, in the early sixties, he defended himself against the demands of one percent for aid, arguing that "only on condition that the leading industrial nations did the same". But the international agreements were concluded and some countries, including Sweden, took the lead. Germany reached 0,7 percent of GNI in 2016, France is well on track (0,53 percent) and Great Britain has recently promised with its tail between its legs to restore the 0,7 percent, which was reached a few years ago, as soon as the economy recovered. The international agreement on sharing the burden of global development remains a clear point of reference. So Tage Erlander finally got what he wanted, even though it took his time.

Finally, how did it go for the child of grief Tanzania, to which so many hopes were attached? We have undoubtedly witnessed countless economic and political setbacks since independence in 1962, even in recent years. The country is rarely marketed nowadays as a successful example, rightly so. But development has also taken place in a way that does not match the negative image. Extreme poverty (less than $ 1,9 per day) was 86 percent in 2000 and is currently down to 49 percent. Tanzania's often so-called aid dependency has diminished from 30 percent of GNI in the 1990s to only 3,5 percent of GNI today, and not because aid has decreased but because the country has had growth. Child mortality (during the first five years of life) in 1962 at independence was 240 per thousand born, about the same level as in Sweden a hundred years earlier. It has now been pushed down to 50 per thousand born, which is actually two decades faster than the time it took for the success story Sweden to make the corresponding journey. "What did I say about long-termism, focus and patience?", Ernst Michanek would say, he who was involved in initiating the Swedish health cooperation with Tanzania almost 60 years ago.

Is there something in the text that is not correct? Contact us at opinion@fuf.se

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