stockholm-1690450_1280.jpgBig Question Economy 

Sweden: On Funding Repressive Regimes

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the fall 2016 History’s Ghosts issue is: What lessons from history keep being forgotten? Below, Erik Jennische argues that Sweden should stop investing in countries that fail to respect civil and political rights, as there is little evidence such “democratization” programs yield results. Click for additional commentary from the United Kingdom and the United States.

By Erik Jennische

A quarter of a century ago, Sweden began to sponsor reforms intended to promote democratization and human rights in the newly liberated countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The democratization processes were often successful, leading to economic growth and public investments in education, health, and the environment. If someone, prior to the transitions to democracy, had proposed investment in these totalitarian governments, they would have been outright laughed at. The counter argument was obvious: We should not invest money in governments that rule by systematic violation of civil and political rights.

However, the argument against investment did not apply when it came to totalitarian and authoritarian governments in other parts of the world, farther away from Sweden. And it still doesn’t. For decades, Sweden—and many others—has financed governments in poor countries that base their power on repressing the rights of their citizens, making poverty an excuse for repression. The stated aim for doing so is, of course, to promote democracy and human rights, but the results do not support the claim that Swedish aid improves conditions in these countries.

Using the Freedom in the World Index, which scores countries on a scale from 1 (most free) to 7 (least free), we can measure the development of political rights and civil liberties in states that have maintained cooperation agreements with Sweden in the last 20 years.

In Bangladesh, repression has increased from 3 to 4, in Ethiopia from 4 to 6.5, and in Uganda from 4 to 5.5. Laos, Rwanda, and Vietnam have consistently scored around 6 or 7 throughout this period; these governments are now, as then, among those in the world with the least respect for basic human rights.

Sweden ended its cooperation with the governments of Vietnam and Laos a few years ago, but it recently extended its agreements with Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Uganda. It is also just launched a new cooperation program with the government of Cuba, a country that has consistently ranked among the least free.

When the Swedish government is asked why the results of its democratization efforts are so poor in these countries, it simply says that development is difficult and takes time. That would be a satisfying answer—but only if the progress of countries with comparable ratings during this period is neglected. Since 1997, Indonesia has improved from 6 to 3, Niger 6 to 3.5, Peru 4.5 to 2.5, Senegal 4 to 2, and Tunisia from 5.5 to 2.

Sweden had no substantive development cooperation with these governments when democratization began and rights protections improved. There is a lot to learn regarding how these changes came about, the role of financial and political support from the international community, the impact of trade, and the political conditions that contribute to further improvements. It is true that it is difficult to promote human rights in repressive countries. But, without understanding the dynamics between international intervention and domestic changes, it will not be easier.

The lesson that should have been learned by now is that continuing to finance governments that commit systematic violations is not solving the issue. Cooperation should not start until real improvements have already been achieved.



Erik Jennische is a Swedish sociologist and human rights defender. In 2015 he published the book Hay que quitarse la policia de la cabeza–Un reportaje sobre Cuba, on the Cuban democracy movement. Since 2014 he has been the Programme Director for Latin America at Civil Rights Defender.

[Photo courtesy of Arek Socha]

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