Analysis of the reform agenda for Swedish foreign aid

SoME Gavobevis 2023

28 May 2024

In December 2023, the Government presented the new reform agenda for Swedish foreign aid. With the key words ‘freedom, empowerment and sustainable growth’, a new direction for Swedish aid was introduced. The new direction marks a clear change from aid that has been needs-based to aid that is based on Swedish interests and countries in the surrounding area. There are some positive priorities in the reform agenda, such as poverty reduction and promotion of health activities, although there is still much to be desired, particularly in the area of women, peace and security. 

Focus on Swedish interests, trade and business – not on the most vulnerable 

In the reform agenda, a consistent focus is that aid should sustain Swedish interests, Swedish trade and industry. Instead of safeguarding sustainable development, aid should safeguard sustainable growth. Instead of prioritising countries with the greatest needs, priority is given to countries that are of interest to Swedish companies and countries in the surrounding area. Business and trade are important components of long-term sustainable development because they stimulate economic growth and create opportunities for employment. However, trade and business are far from being the only important components. This is evident, for example, in the Agenda 2030 , which is based on a holistic approach that emphasises the importance of various areas of society, such as gender equality and peaceful and inclusive societies, as prerequisites for sustainable development. By placing most of the focus on trade, other important prerequisites for sustainable development are thus deprioritised and the 2030 Agenda is rendered invisible. 

When aid is used to prioritise Swedish interests instead of helping the most vulnerable, a difficult moral and ethical situation is created. Swedish aid has previously been needs-based and aid has gone where it is the most needed. With the new policy, the poorest and most vulnerable countries, such as South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Cambodia and Mali, whose bilateral aid co-operation with Sweden is now being phased out, risk falling through the cracks and not receiving the help they need. 

De-prioritisation of peaceful and inclusive societies

The most obvious change related to women, peace and security is that ‘peaceful and inclusive societies’ no longer is listed as an overarching thematic priority. Instead, peace is included under the other thematic priorities. We welcome that the government will work to ‘increase support for human rights and democracy defenders’ and ‘promote peace efforts, including conflict prevention and stabilisation’. However, the removal of the peace section is a clear de-prioritisation of issues related to peace and security. Today, society is characterised by a time of democratic decline, a deteriorating security situation and several ongoing conflicts and increased violence, both internationally and in our proximity. Given this, peace should reasonably be prioritised more, not less. 

Lack of focus on women in conflict

In the area of gender equality, there are some positive aspects to the reform agenda. Among other things, efforts will be made to promote women’s sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) and to combat sexual and gender-based violence. We also particularly welcome the fact that the government wants to promote women’s participation in peace processes. What is not mentioned enough, however, is the vulnerable role of women and girls in conflicts. Conflicts have a strong negative impact on all individuals, but conflicts affect men and women differently, and women and girls are often particularly vulnerable. In particular, sexual violence against women and girls is common in war and conflict. To truly protect the equal rights of women and girls, the reform agenda should therefore more clearly emphasise their needs and aid should be dedicated to meet them. 

Lack of focus on women’s power in society and on men and boys’ perspectives  

We miss the lack of focus on women’s political influence and power in society. It is repeatedly mentioned that women’s economic empowerment should be strengthened, which is something that should definitely be prioritised. However, there should reasonably be more focus on strengthening women’s power in society, as leaders and influencers, not just their power over themselves. In addition to this, there is also a lack of focus on men and boys, which is also a prerequisite for gender equality. Just as women and girls have special needs, so do men and boys. For a true gender perspective, both genders and their different needs must be included. 

Gender equality – no longer relevant in all policies

What is also missing from the reform agenda is a gender perspective integrated into all parts of the agenda and aid. The reform agenda mentions that ‘Gender equality will be taken into account in all relevant interventions’. However, as several organisations have written before us, women’s and girls’ rights are not something that is relevant only sometimes. Women’s rights are always relevant and should be considered in all areas. This is also a clear de-prioritisation from previous aid policy where gender equality was to be integrated into all development cooperation. 

The reform agenda – what we want to see 

The reform agenda makes it clear that Swedish aid policy is facing major changes. Unfortunately, several aspects that have been included in the previous aid policy are now being deprioritised. Trade opportunities and favouring Swedish interests will be the new focus of aid, instead of trying to meet the greatest needs such as poverty and hunger as previously. The focus on peace is also decreasing, while there is a lack of focus on women in conflict, women’s empowerment and men’s perspectives. We want to see a reform agenda where aid goes where the greatest needs are. We want to see a reform agenda that strengthens the work for peaceful and inclusive societies. We want to see a reform agenda that strengthens women as societal actors and leaders, a reform agenda where gender equality always remains relevant.  

By: Sara Uppling

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