Aid in shrinking democratic spaces

Helena Lindholm, ordförande EBA

We are living in an era where civil liberties are increasingly under threat. How  does this trend affect forms and content of Swedish international development cooperation?

The space for freedom of speech, for freedom of opinion, and for civil society is gradually shrinking in a number of countries in the World. It is a global trend of threats towards liberties; freedoms that took decades for us all to conquer.

This trend is formed differently in different parts of the world, but it is by no means a trend that is acted out only in already authoritarian parts of the globe, but is a phenomenon also in the Global North and in states that have adopted democratic forms of government for a long time.

Academics, journalist, lawyers, teachers, authors and artists are threatened in their very professions. This is an era characterised by increased authoritarianism, populism, nationalism and anti-intellectualism.

We witness threats against minorities, against the LGBTI community, we witness misogynism, attempts to silence the press and oppositional movements. In many parts of the world, civil society experience a hard time and their work is made difficult and dangerous.

How does this trend affect forms and content of Swedish international development cooperation?

How is development cooperation designed in an era of shrinking democratic space? How are rapid changes handled? And how can cooperation be best evaluated?

Those are important questions and challenges in the context of Swedish aid as democracy, human rights and freedom of speech are prioritized area for Swedish development policies.

These issues were discussed at an EBA-organised seminar in September 24. The title of the seminar was Swedish aid in shrinking democratic space. The seminar was well-attended, emphasizing the urgency of the issues discussed.

Annika Silva Leander, Head of Democracy Assessment and Political Analyis, IDEA, presented an overarching picture of the development of democracy globally, and showed, among other things, the rapidity in which this sign is occurring.

She also showed how Turkey is a case in point, where drastic changes are implanted in a faster pace than any other countries. Among cases with a more positive development were Ghana and Tunisia.

Åsa Eldén and Paul T Levin, researchers at the Institute of Turkey-studies at Stockholm University, then presented results from an on-going EBA-study on the case of Turkey.

Civil society organisations experience difficulties in their work, connected to arbitrariness and non-transparency of measures by the regime.

Charlotta Norrby, Head of the Unit for Civil Society at Sida then joined in the discussion, recognizing the patterns described. There was agreement that despite the challenges, it is important that Swedish aid continue to support civil society and NGOs and don’t leave civil society actors alone.

Sustainable support can possibly pave the ground for a swifter path to a democratic development in the longer-term perspective.