Sweden must dare to engage in dialogue with authoritarian states

When Sweden conducts development cooperation with undemocratic countries, we must choose whether we should cooperate with the state or not. If we are to be able to influence the development of another country in the long term, the only alternative is for us to have a close dialogue with the country, writes Professor Lennart Wohlgemuth.

Nearly 60 years of development aid have taught us that development must be owned and driven by the government and the people of the countries receiving external support. Otherwise there will be no lasting results. This insight was already in the first bill on Swedish development assistance from 1962 and has been emphasized in most studies and evaluations over the years - and was finally stated in the Paris Declaration on the effectiveness of development assistance in 2005. This means that the reforms, programs and projects affected by development assistance must be anchored in the environment in which they are to be implemented. Those affected must be involved and responsible for their own development - otherwise there will be no results.

This reasoning is not difficult to understand and in the literature it is pointed out again and again. But despite this, it is so difficult to implement in practice. In the name of efficiency and results, the donor most often drives the efforts in front of him, without waiting for the recipients' commitment and interest. If anything, the lack of ownership has been the Achilles' heel of development aid since the first efforts in the mid-1950s.

A large measure of trust is required

In order for the donor in good conscience to dare to hand over responsibility for the supported efforts, a great deal of trust is required between the parties. And the lack of trust in particular is an important explanatory factor for the fact that it has been so difficult for the donors to release the recipients.

This has not become easier with time either. Since we saw a breakthrough for the development of democracy and human rights at the end of the last century, a trend in a completely different direction is currently being considered. More and more states are becoming more authoritarian with increasing difficulties for political opposition to act. The media is finding it more difficult to act freely, the space for civil society is shrinking, there are more and more violations of human rights and the situation for women is deteriorating. The issues that are seen as guiding stars for sustainable development in Sweden are currently increasingly difficult to hear. In several countries, the development has gone so far that the state no longer has control over the development. It is often the case that the countries that need support the most are the ones where the conditions for conducting effective support are worst. And that is also where Sweden ends up, in its determination to help those who are worst off.

Swedish policy is to, as far as possible, try to provide support for an international sustainable development that aims both to lift people out of poverty and to work for a world that both economically, socially and environmentally makes it possible to live a tolerable life. This has been established both in the Swedish policy for global development (PGU) from 2003 and by Sweden, together with all other states, signing a survival strategy for the world - the so-called Agenda 2030.

It is important here to be actively involved both in and outside Sweden in order to fulfill the goals that we considered necessary - and to counteract the great challenges that the world is facing. This requires above all to pursue the fundamental values ​​that Sweden and Agenda 2030 stand for.

Five ways to work with authoritarian states

So what are the ways to go? Here are some possible scenarios for how we can work with development cooperation in authoritarian states:

1. Dialogue at the center. Regardless of the policy pursued by the partner country, we cooperate openly and broadly with state-to-state cooperation complemented by support for civil society, the private sector and multilateral organizations such as the UN. Support for the government is based on the "everything but weapons" principle and includes budget support. The starting point is that through close and trusting collaboration we get the opportunity to have a constant discussion about important value issues and participate in a discussion about issues that are important to us. In the long term, we will thus be able to influence development in a positive direction from our point of view. Our dialogue takes place partly bilaterally but also through the EU and the multilateral system.

2. Donor-driven development policy. This scenario still allows for state-to-state cooperation complemented by support for civil society, the private sector and the multilateral system. Sweden's confidence in the partner country's own priorities is not sufficient, however, to be able to accept purely general support to the government, but we want to control the use of the support and control in more detail how it is used. This scenario still allows the partner to take the initiative in which areas the country wants outside support, but the final decision on the purpose lies with the donor. General budget support and sector support are excluded.

3. Institutional development at the center. This scenario further limits areas of state support. The donor is concerned here about the policies pursued by the partner country, especially in the value issues that are so important to the donor. The support via the state then becomes very selective. In this situation, various forms of institutional support can be a possible way forward. Support for groups outside the state is increased whenever possible. Both scenarios 2 and 3 are based on reduced trust between the two partners. This means that the opportunity to conduct the long-term dialogue discussed in scenario 1 becomes smaller and therefore it becomes more difficult to achieve an impact. Categories 2 and 3 also require greater dialogue skills, as the scope for dialogue is smaller.

4. Alternatives to the state. Our trust is so low that we want to avoid giving our support through the state and its authorities. The alternatives will then be civil society or the private sector. Great care must be taken. In many cases, a skilled authoritarian state can infiltrate the institutions of civil society to such an extent that support for civil society in practice also means support for the state. The trend of civil society taking greater responsibility for delivering health care or education supports this tendency. In other cases, support for civil society actors may involve endangering them. Sweden has often chosen to channel funds through a UN body in such cases. But the question then is whether you do not do what you want to avoid anyway - namely provide support to the state, albeit indirectly. By not acting directly with the state in question, the opportunities for dialogue are drastically reduced.

5. End the collaboration completely. In the last scenario, trust is so small that it is judged that it can not continue to provide any support to the country in question. The dialogue in this case can then only take place indirectly through multilateral contacts.

Must compromise in the choice of method

If you are serious about Swedish policy for global development and the strong Swedish support for Agenda 2030, the Swedish government must find a way to be able to act internationally - so that we can both engage in dialogue and act in their spirit. Then we must also compromise in the choice of method for how to relate to other states and to their partner countries. This leads in most cases to the choice of alternative 1, 2 or 3.

In my opinion, the main principle should always be alternative 1. This provides maximum dialogue capacity and is really the only alternative to be able to influence another country's development in the long term. However, it requires that you have your sights set on a fairly distant future - and it is often difficult to justify in times of demands for quick results.

Options 2 and 3 then become the more realistic alternatives. These place greater demands on our dialogue competence. Therefore, a lot of effort must be put into refining our strategies for how we should conduct dialogue in difficult situations and train those who will carry out these dialogues, both large and small.

In order for important reforms to really be implemented, it is necessary that they feel important and are owned by those who are to ensure that they are implemented. The dialogue should therefore aim at convincing those responsible for the very importance of these reforms for long-term and sustainable development - which will benefit the entire population.

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

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