Swedish Aid Cuts Dent ‘Decades of Work’ in Global South

By Marta Paterlini

Cuts to Sweden’s overseas aid budget have undermined decades of work building research partnerships in the global South, according to researchers.

The Swedish government more than halved its overseas aid budget in 2023 and this was followed by stringent cuts to development research funding. Ministers cited the war in Ukraine among other factors behind the cuts.

“The majority of the research community believe that the impacts of the cuts for the global South are negative – both in the short- and long-term,” says Janet Vähämäki, researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute and director of the Swedish Development Research Network (SweDev).

Sweden follows other large donors such as the UK, which in 2021 cut overseas development spending to 0.5 per cent of national output from 0.7 per cent due to economic pressures in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, damaging research partnerships across low- and middle-income countries.

Vähämäki is the author of the report Development research in Sweden today: funding and ways forward, which explores reactions to the cuts through a digital survey carried out between February and March this year.

The survey involved almost 200 people, most of them development researchers, plus some working in development practice or policy.

“We wanted to nail down the consequences caused by these cuts, as reported by development researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in Sweden,” Vähämäki tells SciDev.Net.

Sweden has been a leading player in development and aid research for more than 50 years. In 2022, Sweden was the most generous large country in the global North, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development which ranks countries by the percentage of their total economic output given in development assistance.

However, researchers say the country’s position and reputation as a research partner and funder in global sustainable development has been seriously undermined by the cuts.

‘Decades of work’

“The sudden loss of funding jeopardized the work done for decades to build up long-term research capacity in low-income countries,” says Peter Waiswa, associate professor at Makerere University School of Public Health in Uganda, where he directs the Centre of Excellence for Maternal Newborn and Child Health.

“It takes time to build collaborations and research environments that work, both in Sweden and in the global South,” says Waiswa, who believes that a more connected world is of benefit for everyone.

“Global health is designed around connections among people and we, global South and North, need each other,” he adds.

Waiswa says that, like others, he is trying to find alternative ways to fund his research and to keep working with his partners from the global North.

In the past, funding for the development research community was given through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskaprådet, or VR) plus its instrument for the VR programme called Uforsk.

However, in sweeping cuts to Sweden’s overall budget in 2023, Sida’s budget was slashed in January 2023 by 54 per cent, from 960 million kronor (US$88.4 million) in 2022 to around US$40 million. Sida is also a major funder of SciDev.Net.

Then, in June 2023, VR, the country’s largest research funder, halted grants for development research to the tune of about US$16.6 million with immediate effect, official documents show.

The budget reduction affected grant applications submitted by around 250 researchers in Sweden, together with dozens of international collaborators based mainly at universities in Africa or Asia, according to a source at VR.

Sweden’s Ministry for International Development, Cooperation and Foreign Trade, under which the budget reduction occurred, says development researchers can still apply for broader VR grants which were unaffected by the cuts.

However, according to researchers these are extremely competitive and access to money is far from easy.

More than half of those surveyed reported that their work had been negatively affected by the cuts in funding, with higher levels of uncertainty, tougher prioritisation, and cancellation of bilateral programmes.

Research discontinued

More than two thirds of respondents said their work was either discontinued or significantly altered because of the budget cuts, impacting long-term projects, collaborative research with colleagues in other countries, and networks that had been built up over time.

“The Government’s decision undermined confidence in the research support system as a whole,“ says Camille Pellerin, a researcher for Uppsala University, who works in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on state-society relations, democratisation, political reform, public administration, and urban conflict in the Horn of Africa.

“Sweden was great for developing studies, there was a lot of money for us for field work, primary data collection as well as exchange of colleagues from the South.”

All that has changed, she says: “Suddenly, my local collaborators here were annoyed because everything disappeared.”

Pellerin says her funds went from US$400,000 for a three year-project down to US$360,000 for four years, with Sweden’s inflation adding to the pressure.

‘Sharp shift’

Vähämäki observes a “sharp shift from global South to global North” when it comes to research priorities.

Her report highlights a trend towards topics more relevant to the Swedish context, such as migration, AI and climate change, with less focus on issues such as poverty, inequality, rural development and access to water.

It was presented to politicians and policymakers last month (16 April) in Stockholm. “I really hope that researchers’ voices will be heard,” adds Vähämäki.

Sheila Holmes, researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, says: “I think several development researchers are slowly turning, of their own volition or, as in my case, at the urging of their departments, towards more Sweden-based research.”

“I think it will take years to really see the full impact of this,” she adds.

Sweden’s Ministry for International Development, Cooperation and Foreign Trade did not respond to SciDev.Net’s requests for comment ahead of publication. Sida declined to comment.

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.

Image: Pixabay

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