Government Offices in Rosario, Philippines.

Supporting countries' public institutions can be an important path to development, the debaters write. Here are some public offices in Rosario, Philippines. Photo: Ramon FVelasquez (CC-3.0)


Dare to invest aid in strengthening institutions

Strengthening the knowledge level of low-income countries in both private and public institutions is an important way of creating development. Despite this, this type of assistance has been given less and less space. Now we must dare to invest in capacity and institution building - even if it is difficult, write the development experts Bertil Odén and Lennart Wohlgemuth.

In order to run the public administration in, for example, health care, tax systems and the judiciary, it is necessary to develop the knowledge that exists in the country in question. The assistance can provide support for this often complicated and time-consuming process that involves raising knowledge but also a large measure of changed attitudes. The support is provided in the form of expert support, educational initiatives and cooperation between corresponding institutions in the recipient country and in Sweden.

At the end of September, Sida, in collaboration with the Expert Group for Development Aid Analysis and the Association for Development Issues, organized a seminar entitled Capacity and Ownership - New Ways of Working. It provided a relatively good overview of the experiences gained during a long period of development cooperation and recommendations from various quarters on how operations in this area could be streamlined.

The seminar was also a sign that the issue of capacity and institution building is on the way back on the development assistance agenda, after a time of marginalization. Statistics show that the share of aid used in direct co-operation with the governments of the partner countries has decreased, and within this shrinking co - operation, support for reforms and capacity building of public institutions has decreased. As a result, one of the most important components of traditional bilateral Swedish development cooperation has gained less and less space.

But now it seems as if thinking has changed and that improved capacity and stronger institutions are once again becoming important components of development cooperation.

New strategy with capacity development in focus

The one recently adopted by the government Strategy for capacity development, partnerships and methods that support Agenda 2030 for sustainable development states that Sida's activities in this area will contribute to the following goals:
1. Capacity development
2. Collaboration and partnership
3. Innovative methods and working methods for development cooperation
4. A broad Swedish resource base.

The seminar provided the participants with a wide range of advice and experience. They were not exactly new, but many can withstand being repeated / resurrected, such as:

  • Build on and develop the already existing knowledge and capacity available from the partner. Have a long-term perspective, which is required, among other things, to build the mutual trust that is necessary.
  • It is necessary to understand the context in which the co-operation is to take place. Who is pushing for policy reforms and who is opposed? Identify dependency links between the different actors.
  • The partner must own the process and be involved in designing the business to have a lasting effect. The vision needs to be shared.
  • Let the working method be flexible and make changes during the journey. Make sure that the follow-up work is included from the beginning.
  • If the implementation includes some quickly gained successes, the motivation in the implementation is increased.

An ongoing study from the Expert Group for Development Aid Analysis reported, among other things, that self-interest in several countries is taking an increasing place in development aid policy. Several EU member states are increasingly disagreeing and less interested in adapting to any overarching EU line.

It is important to strengthen the Swedish resource base

One problem at present is that the development agency Sida does not have the capacity to be sufficiently involved in these processes. That is why the emphasis in the new strategy on strengthening the Swedish resource base in this area is so important.

The Swedish actors from public authorities, business and civil society organizations want stable conditions for co-operation to flow smoothly. That component has weakened sharply in recent years. The environment in which you work is more uncertain, and the space for the business is shrinking. This is due to the fact that authoritarian regimes in more and more countries are imposing extensive restrictions, and that some organizations in their home countries are also faced with less understanding and reduced financial support.

It was also pointed out that there is also a difference between public authorities that contribute to building up “apolitical” institutions in the form of state or local authorities and civil society actors who work with value issues. The issues of value require political reforms, which authoritarian political and military leaders perceive as a threat to their position of power. The local partner is the one who knows this best. It also knows what standards it challenges with its demands for reform. The Swedish party often has a less clear picture of this and should therefore listen more to the local.

Great needs - little ability

One factor that is holding back increased focus on direct bilateral support for government projects, including public authorities, is the recent decline in trust between development partners. Among other things, corruption scandals or other irregularities that come to light contribute to this. But also the recipients' irritation that the assistance is conditional on wishes / demands for policy changes.

Among other things, this has resulted in Sida increasingly delegating responsibility for its efforts to UN agencies and other international organizations.

A side effect will then be that the management cost of the business is multiplied, because in addition to costs for Sida's administration, the international organization is added. It is usually significantly higher, but appears in the accounts as payment for the actual business. The Ministry of Finance must be convinced that Sida's own capacity must keep pace with the size of the development assistance budget.

Fragile states are becoming more common among the Swedish partner countries. At the same time, it is obvious that in these very countries (rebuilding) the competence and capacity of public institutions is a cornerstone for getting a reasonable development going again. This is despite the fact that the conditions are poor.

The old thesis still applies that the need for assistance is greatest in the countries that have the least ability to handle it effectively. Cooperation with fragile states is often high-risk operations. This is something that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Sida must be able to explain to politicians and the general public, as well as why it is important to continue cooperation with such countries.

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

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