By David Meffe
This story was originally published on the New African magazine.
In the post-2015 development era, many stakeholders are expected to play a role in the implementation of sustainable development in Africa, including the Nordic countries. But David Meffe asks whether all such engagement has had a positive impact.
It was the winter of 2013 when Siri Berge Engerud packed a bag and nervously boarded a long flight headed somewhere South. The culmination of countless tropical inoculations, endless debriefing sessions and confusing visa applications, this was to be the first practical application of the knowledge she had been gleaning from her African Studies program at the University of Oslo.
"It was always my plan to do something like this," she says. "I went to Kenya to know more about African societies, and because it’s easy to travel in the region after that."
She started working as a fundraiser at a small NGO which focused on health issues in Kibera – Kenya’s largest slum. Siri would later use her volunteer experience as a springboard into paid positions in the development aid industry, and has been returning often to East Africa for different projects ever since.
"There are a lot of Swedes, Danes and Norwegians doing internships like this, and life is very different to that from back home. But most of these internships just develop the persons themselves, and do not necessarily leave a footprint. I was the one that changed during my internship," she adds. Her story is hardly unfamiliar. For decades, scores of Nordic youth have undertaken similar journeys of existential funk, settling across Africa as volunteers or interns, gaining noteworthy experience in the booming aid sector their governments, the private sector and civil society groups offer.
But while many Western nations have been accused of using patchwork aid funds as a means of furthering internal economic or political interests, Nordic countries lack noteworthy bilateral trade with countries south of the Sahara, and more importantly have no direct colonial history in the region.
Even in the early days of post-colonial development in the 1950s, Nordic projects tended to focus on a more hands-on approach to aid, rather than just sending funds or food in bulk.
So is it really all just Nordic altruism in the works? For now, perhaps, but ultimately the goal seems to be the propagation of a far richer treasure: the Nordic social and economic model. The endgame for this kind of cooperation being infinitely more reciprocal than just feelgood stories and global moral utilitarianism.
Roots of Nordic aid
Starting in the early 1950s, Nordic countries went through a period of rapid internal political, social and economic development that culminated in a collective system of social democracies that today rank very highly not only in the Human Development Index, but also in GDP per capita. Given the region’s sparse natural resources (prior to the discovery of fossil fuels) and long history of warfare and fluid borders, this was no easy task.
"One big social aspect was this notion of solidarity, and this notion of equality," says Iina Soiri, director of the Nordic Africa Institute, a political research center based in Uppsala, Sweden. She adds: "This Nordic model was of course very characteristic to Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The society was very much based on [the] free market economy, but also a policy that was aimed at leveling out the roots of development. So we developed progressive taxation, strong educational social sectors, and part of that of course was the notion of responding to global needs."
Nordic countries got involved in global development shortly after World War II, partially as a response to Scandinavia struggling with non-alignment in the early years of the Cold War.
"So rather than responding to global problems with force or post-colonial interests, they decided to respond by being active in peacemaking, active in development, active in providing global humanitarian and long term aid."
According to 2013 figures from the Development Assistance Committee, all four Nordic countries rank high on the list of most generous national governments when it comes to Official Development Assistance (ODA). But when you consider these figures per capita, or even as a percentage of total GNI (Gross National Income), Nordic nations skyrocket to the top with larger economies trailing behind. In 2014, Norway dispersed over 3.6 billion euros in development aid worldwide, 20% of which went to more than 40 countries in Africa. The concept of development aid originally emerged as a temporary fix for developing nations with struggling economies or populations beleaguered by conflict or natural disaster. Today however, many nations in sub-Saharan Africa still rely on foreign donors. Furthermore, major governmental aid organizations have been painted as representing a new arm of Western imperialism by propping up repressive political regimes or corrupt extractive practices in the name of economic concessions and good business.
In her controversial 2009 book Dead Aid, Zambian-born author and economist Dambisa Moyo argued that aid itself keeps Africa impoverished by inadvertently snuffing out sustainable economic growth that could otherwise occur naturally with a well-intentioned injection of initial capital. Yet, amid a broader European aid sector under increasing fire for ineffective spending of public funds, Nordic development agencies have increasingly supported new conceptual approaches to capacity building in Africa, notably the dissemination of knowledge in everything from resource management to taxation – something Nordic countries are decidedly very good at. Development policies have also traditionally focused on issues like gender equality, press freedom and access to education – classic tenets of the Nordic social democratic model.
In January 2013 the Danish parliament brought into effect new policies for the distribution of international aid which detailed how "Danish development cooperation should help to promote Danish interests in a more peaceful, stable and just world. Development policy is a central and integral element in Danish foreign policy which recognizes that developing countries are not only affected by development policies, but also [by] action in other policy areas."
So while altruism does seem to play a role in international development, even policy language demonstrates a hint of self-interest, the understanding that if the playing field is level, the game becomes a lot more interesting, and profitable, for all sides involved.
Humanitarians of the North?
Public opinion polls conducted in 2010 ranked Sweden (96%), Denmark (94%), and Finland (94%) among the biggest supporters of continued financial aid to developing countries. All three nations also had the highest public support for increasing aid to 0.7 percent of GNI by 2015, with more than 60% of respondents agreeing.
With such significant public support, it’s no wonder that the civil society sector has become one of the fastest growing industries in the Nordic region.
"It’s becoming a huge industry, and a very popular industry at home. Humanitarian workers in 2015 are the new firemen; they are sexy, adventurous, with a bit of danger… It’s a cool profession. A save-the-world kind of hero thing, you know," says Engerud.
But while the social status of aid workers has risen at home, so too has criticism for paternalistic work expectations and social media narcissism that often eclipses grander good intentions. Websites like the popular "Humanitarians of Tinder" routinely update profile photos filled with impoverished prop children and culturally insensitive appropriations on the part of young aid workers.
Christine Nyamache works as a manager at AIESEC Kenya, a youth-led international not-for-profit focusing on intercultural development, working closely with volunteers from the Norwegian Peace Corps (Fredskorpset). Over the years, she’s seen hundreds of young workers from Nordic countries, with a mixed bag of results.
"It always depends on the individual, but a lot of volunteers from Northern Europe come to East Africa with the wrong expectations, not the wrong intentions. Some people want to save the world, while others just want to go back home and brag about how they’ve been to Africa," she says, adding: "But a lot of them learn so much that they do come back, because they have developed partnerships in one way or another. They realize that there are things to offer from both ends."
The sometimes cringe-worthy fish out of water savior scenarios have become such a running gag in the development community that a few years ago the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Funds (SAIH), a youth-led non-profit, released a series of viral online videos satirizing the industry’s one-dimensional portrait of African problems and easy European panaceas.
In one of their popular videos, Africans hear about winter conditions in Norway and begin a Live Aid-style musical campaign to collect radiators to donate to freezing Norwegians.
"We made the video in order to challenge the patronizing stereotypes that are way too often used in campaigns. We turned it all around and portrayed Norway as a cold and dark place in need of a simple solution," says SAIH president Jørn Wichne Pedersen.
"It’s important to get people to see that the information we are being served is very often extremely simple. And when problems and issues are year after year being portrayed as very simple, then one often believes in simple solutions," he explains further.
Given the economic prosperity of Nordic countries and the high value placed on civil society work, Pedersen says young people going abroad should focus on broader goals of their work in terms of supporting not only immediate solutions, but long-lasting capacity building based on their own experiences with social organizations like trade or student unions.
This trend, it seems, is more closely aligned with the longer economic game being played by Nordic development agencies.
Money and morality
So while young Northern Europeans may be reaping many of the personal benefits from international development, the larger organizations they serve are looking at a much bigger picture than just an Instagram snapshot. Above all else, what Nordic governments are really trying to sell Africa is the real merchandise: their social model.
A public opinion poll conducted by Eurobarometer in 2013 indicated that Nordic citizens in the European Union (Sweden, Denmark and Finland) ranked in the highest tiers of those who believe strongly that not only should tackling poverty abroad be a priority for their respective governments, but that doing so would ultimately have a positive effect on people in Europe.
Iina Soiri says that as economies in Africa begin to evolve into more lucrative foreign markets, global trade inevitably becomes a more important focus of development work. Global value chains and interest in African natural resources have intensified, along with interest on the part of African nations in benefiting more openly from global trade and institutions like the World Trade Organisation.
"We all know that the global trade patterns are now involving African countries which earlier couldn’t produce or sell, import or export; the developing world is getting more complex.
"There are fragile states which are very much still dependent on foreign aid, on the other hand many countries are qualifying to borrow capital from the private sector as well," she says.
Soiri says the lack of colonial history in Africa puts Nordic countries in a unique position, maintaining the division between so-called "grand development" and the supplanting of a mimicked social democratic system. Nordic countries have begun to share intellectual capital in the form of resource management experience and socioeconomic policies, a seemingly more equitable approach to development than simply sending over crates of old T-shirts.
"I don’t think we sell our model to that extent, but we use it as a basis for a dialogue with our partner countries, to justify why institutions should be transparent and strong in order to function well in any society," she says. "I think the whole notion of a strong, equal and open public sector is something that has been all along one of the strengths in our development policy dialogue."
One such example of bilateral cooperation based on knowledge is currently taking place in Mozambique within Norway’s Oil for Development programme. While cooperation between the two nations goes back to the mid-70s, the Nordic-Mozambican conference of 2012 outlined new ways in which partners in the North would help the country with economic transformation through job creation, taxation and state-building – not to mention transparent management of the large natural gas reserves discovered that same year. Coincidentally, these are all fields that Nordic nations know intimately. The cooperation also focuses on environmental regulations, policy management and technological innovation.
With an estimated 100 trillion cubic feet of subterranean goods, Mozambique is currently sitting on the third-largest natural gas reserve in Africa.
In light of this increased cooperation, new positions in development and diplomacy have sprung up across the capital of Maputo, which just so happens to be exactly where Siri Berge Engerud finds herself these days. In a few months, she will begin a new internship at the Norwegian embassy, supporting this cooperation – her prior experiences having helped her application greatly.
David Meffe is a Canadian journalist, photographer and blogger from Montreal currently based in Swansea, UK. His work focuses on human rights, development and music in Africa. You can read him on his blog.