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Sida cannot outsource the country knowledge

In recent years, the development agency Sida's task has been to move and manage money. There is no time left for what makes development assistance more effective - to gain knowledge and understanding of the environment in which development assistance is to be integrated. This is what Professor Göran Hydén writes, who is now proposing an internal investigation.

In its recently published guest chronicle here in Utvecklingsmagasinet, the political scientist Daniel Tarshys has come to the aid administration's defense. Based on a report to the Expert Group for Development Aid (EBA), he argues that the administration has been cut down so much over the years that the efficiency of development assistance has been negatively affected. Aid veteran Inge Gerremo emphasizes in one debate post that the opportunity for mutual exchange of knowledge and learning has diminished within the framework of the partnerships that now politically regulate bilateral aid.

Land knowledge is gone

There is reason to agree with both posts. The aid has been run on such frugal energy that the entire machinery has lost the power needed to achieve its goals. Perhaps the most important thing that has happened is that the country knowledge that was acquired during the agency's first three decades via Sida's own hired aid workers is no longer available. Today, Sida is mainly a financier. The authority moves and manages money rather than exchanging knowledge and gaining experience from partner countries.

The knowledge and experience instead end up with those who Sida finances to implement the Swedish development assistance. These are mainly Swedish non-governmental organizations, UN agencies and other Swedish authorities such as Statistics Sweden. There is nothing wrong with the responsibility for development assistance being spread and the experience benefiting others than Sida. But the foot soldiers need a general who is ready to both lead and fight. In today's more complicated world, Sida must strengthen its role as a guide, while at the same time giving the authority the chance to acquire its own lessons.

Such was Sida's position during its “golden age”, when it was organically linked to both the partner countries' authorities and society. Although the first generation of Swedish aid workers may have somewhat bluntly believed that the Swedish experience was best practice, they were at the same time open to learning from the opportunity to work in a foreign environment. Swedish development assistance was to a very large extent based on the insights they brought back to Sweden. Since then, ties with partner countries have thinned. Aid is more tightly controlled by politicians. The results are more important than how they were achieved. Sida's own routines reduce finger sensitivity in contact with institutions and people in the partner countries.

The paper empire takes over

Raising the value and status of the administration in development assistance is highly desirable, but a hard nut to crack. It is basically a structural problem. There is no time left for what makes development assistance more effective - an understanding and appreciation of the environment in which development assistance is to be integrated. Those who are employed at Sida today are forced into the role of general administrators. Paper rule takes over. At their offices in the Swedish embassies, staff are locked up to complete reporting to the home authority or answer e-mails from colleagues in Stockholm, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or employees within the organizations that receive money from Sida. Under these circumstances, it is not so strange that Sida has difficulty learning from its own experiences. Or that Sida is now only an aid body among many others - without the power that previously gave Sweden a leading and respected position both among recipients and other donors.

Reporting is of course important, but this is where the shoe squeezes. It takes place at the expense of getting to know the social and political contexts of the partner countries. Since the emphasis in the reporting is on conveying a picture of how the development in the country can be attributed to Swedish development assistance goals, this easily becomes both superficial and skewed. The nuances suffer and the context is missing. The result is that the report provides a picture of the recipient country that tends to exaggerate both the positive and the negative.

What is most easily lost is the understanding of the context and the respect for the countries' historical background - not only the colonial but also - and perhaps above all - the pre-colonial. Forgetting how the latter affects politics and social development in Africa today is like ignoring how slavery to this day affects America both socially and politically.

When we talk about strengthening development assistance administration, it is precisely the need for context understanding that must be given greater weight and space. Situation analyzes written by people with good knowledge of the country and an understanding of the goals and methods of Swedish development assistance are perhaps the easiest way to address the issue. The assignment should not be performed by a consultant but someone who has a permanent position within Sida. This is why the problem goes deeper and should be the subject of an internal investigation into how the exchange of knowledge can be strengthened and the context can be prepared for a larger place in the reporting home.

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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