Generous Swedes Rethink Their Foreign Aid

For decades, the Swedes have tried to share the fruits of their affluent, smooth-running society by maintaining a generous foreign-aid program. Sending money to poorer countries is something of a national pastime among the wealthy states of Scandinavia.

There have been some rewards. When Nelson Mandela took his first trip abroad in 1990 after his release from prison, he came to Sweden - a recognition of the support he and his compatriots long had received from Swedish organizations in the fight against apartheid.

But in recent years, Sweden's foreign-aid programs have been subject to criticisms and cutbacks. The debate here is different from the criticism of foreign aid that takes place in the United States: It isn't so much the expense that rankles - although government cutbacks since the early 1990s have been motivated by a budget crunch. It's the apparent lack of impact.

"When we look to see what has been achieved, we literally find nothing," argues Goran Lemmarker, an opposition member of parliament, about Sweden's longstanding efforts to promote development in the African country of Tanzania.

"I object very much," responds Barbro Johansson, a Church of Sweden missionary who took Tanzanian nationality in 1961 and later served as the country's ambassador to the Nordic countries. Ms. Johansson cites gains in education and the participation of women in Tanzanian society that she says were made possible through Swedish aid. Tanzanians, she says, also "saw that someone really cared."

Along with India, Mozambique, South Africa, and Vietnam, Tanzania is among the countries that have received the most Swedish aid.

Nonetheless, Mr. Lemmarker's sentiments are a good illustration of the Swedish debate, in which people worry more about effect - or the lack of it - than cost. He says he would be happy to see Sweden's aid budget return to the high levels it reached in the 1980s, an amount equivalent to nearly 1 percent of Sweden's gross national product, as long as positive results were evident. Cutbacks have brought the figure down to 0.7 percent of GNP.

And Lemmarker is complimentary about the efforts of Swedish charitable groups abroad, some of whom receive major funding from the government. "That is entirely another story," he says.

Margareta Wennlund, a spokeswoman for the government's Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), concedes there is some truth to an image that has come to symbolize Sweden's efforts in Tanzania, that of "broken Swedish tractors in the African fields."

"We didn't adjust Swedish efforts to the Tanzanian reality," she adds. "That's a big lesson we have learned."

Under the leadership of former Prime Minister Olof Palme, a Social Democrat who was assassinated a decade ago, many Swedes worked to express "solidarity" with people in poorer countries, a brand of 1960s idealism that contributed to Sweden's present international identity.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, for instance, Sweden stepped in to offer aid and other assistance to the Vietnamese. That aid strained Swedish relations with the US and other countries.

The notion of solidarity also applied to Africa, the region where Sweden has directed most of its aid efforts. Many Swedes were enthusiastic about the gains that could be achieved by newly independent African nations, but this ardor has dimmed.

"Today we think it was a naive faith in what the former African colonies could accomplish," Ms. Wennlund says.

The disenchantment is related to a larger reevaluation under way in this country.

"The pride in the Swedish model is not that strong anymore," explains Bo Karlstrom, an economist who has worked for SIDA and the International Monetary Fund.

This loss of confidence is mainly due to problems in the Swedish economy that have forced the government to shrink the country's once-expansive system of social benefits. Swedish companies have also recognized that their products are increasingly uncompetitive in comparison with goods from Asia and other parts of the world.

Partly as a result of economic insecurity, Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, a step that has made Swedes feel less independent and turned them more toward Europe. In contrast to their parents, who struck out for more distant locations, more young Swedes are now studying in other European countries.

In the US, the rationale for giving money to other countries has always been linked to American foreign policy. During the cold war, in particular, American economic assistance was often used as a carrot to keep a receiving nation from drifting into the communist camp.

But Sweden's disbursement of aid money has been much more altruistic. "The main message is helping poor people in poor countries," says Jan Cedergren, director general for international development cooperation in Sweden's Ministry for Foreign Affairs. "It has a rather moral aspect to it."

Mr. Karlstrom, the economist, extols the good intentions that have motivated his country's aid program - "if it worked," he adds. He argues that it doesn't, particularly when aid flows from one government to another.

He estimates that roughly two-thirds of Sweden's 14.2 billion kroner ($2.14 billion) aid budget for 1996 will go to other governments, rather than to private or nongovernmental organizations, which are less prone to corruption and more likely to spend the money in ways that actually benefit poor people.

Like many critics of development policy, Karlstrom says that governments of rich nations should do more to let businesses in developing countries flourish, such as reducing trade barriers.

The best way to encourage economic development in poor countries is to open markets to foreign goods, he argues, not hand money to bureaucrats responsible for those economies.

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