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What is happening with the Swedish civil society?

February has been a time for changes for Swedish aid, changes that civil society must relate to. First came the new Civil Society Strategy where an increase in the own contribution was announced. That is, the portion that organisations themselves must contribute to implement projects. Although the increase was lower than the original plan, such a large increase in such a short time is devastating for small organisations. This means that either, funds that would have gone to projects and activities need to be reallocated to private fundraising or resources need to be cut, which of course also affects projects and activities. With a risk of small organisations needing to cut all their employed staff and having to rely on volunteer resources to survive. Though, it is not possible to run professional projects and respond to increased demands for transparency and information without professional staff.  

This was followed by the Foreign Affairs Declaration, where the focus shifted from the wider world to the region closes to us. However, the same document states the following regarding Israel and Palestine: “Swedish aid funds should be used effectively and contribute to promoting the conditions for a two-state solution and be channelled through actors who do not directly or indirectly support Hamas, terrorism or anti-Semitism”. And this has been established by SIDA in two subsequent evaluations of Swedish and Palestinian organisations. In the latest evaluation, large amounts of public communication were analysed using AI. One (1) organisation, whose cooperation was already terminated, had expressed positive views on the Hamas attack in external communications. No organisations were found on the EU sanctions list. Some administrative procedures could be strengthened. But nothing serious enough to terminate further cooperation. One case required further investigation. SIDA shared its analysis with the government on February 15 and now, almost a month later, the government has still not shared their decision. This is at odds with their expressed desire to support the conditions for a two-state solution. Meanwhile, the war in Gaza continues, with the death toll exceeding 30,000. Our partners in the West Bank experience shrinking space and difficulties both in their daily life and in their professional activities to build and strengthen peace, equality and democracy.  

Finally, on Leap Day SIDA was given a new assignment by the government, namely to investigate the transfer of responsibility of Swedish aid and transfer of funds to international partners, from the civil society to the state. The investigation of several issues will be prepared at short notice over the next four months with implementation from January first 2025. This would mean that the Swedish civic movement of the people, which over many years has built relationships and exchanged experiences and knowledge with international organisations, may have lost its importance. With all due respect to SIDA, but how will they be able to build relationships and exchange knowledge at the same level as civil society? Aid is not just about the transaction of funds, it is about solidarity, exchange of experience and relationships built on trust – which takes time to establish. It also requires skills, both technical and social. Skills that risk being lost when civil society is dismantled.  

If you add the above to the withdrawn funds for civil society that were announced in the various appropriation directions to SIDA and the Folke Bernadotte Academy in December 2023, such as the removed Information and Communication Grant that was used to inform the public about the important work of Swedish civil society, the withdrawn funds that went to peace organisations and the peace budget cut in half, the removed 1% target for aid and last week’s recommendation to close down the Allmänna Arvsfoden. Things are starting to point in a direction where the Swedish civil society will have a much less prominent role. 

Ultimately, it is important to remember that when the Swedish people had their say in SIDA’s annual survey of attitudes to aid, 74% of the public thought it was important for Sweden to contribute to development in poor countries. 16% want to see an increase in aid and the proportion who want it to decrease has fallen to 26%. We need to remember, that the state funds that go to aid come from our common tax money. We who vote have the power to communicate where we want Sweden, our civil society and our tax money to go. What future do you want to see? 

Anette Uddqvist, Director