Norway must stand firm on its commitment to sustainable development

The Norway flag. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, secretary-general of CIVICUS, explores Norway's development leadership role in maintaining coherence of policy and spending priorities at home and abroad, in light of the mass movement of refugees in to Europe. Photo by: mr.driver / CC BY-NC-ND

Prime Minister Solberg is becoming an international development superstar. Two weeks ago, at the United Nations in New York, I saw her on countless stages championing progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals — with much acclaim from gathered diplomats, activists and businesspeople.

Happily, the draft budget tabled by Solberg’s government this week proves that she’s prepared to make good on her promises. At a time when foreign aid budgets are coming under increasing pressure in the majority of donor countries, Norway’s retaining official development assistance at 1 percent of GNI is welcome.

While this means a record amount of aid money next year, the news on refugee spending is more mixed. While the actual allocation of funds to refugee reception services has been cut by half from its peak, more of this spending is now being earmarked for returning asylum seekers to their country of origin, rather than providing for them in Norway. Such a move mirrors a wider trend currently playing out in countries across Northern Europe, many argue it goes against the spirit of development cooperation to treat it as aid.

For me, perhaps the most worrying feature of Norway’s new aid budget is that — again, in keeping with recent European trends — a proposed increase in humanitarian relief spending has been matched by a relative reduction in long-term development assistance. As I learned during my time on the U.N. High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing last year, we are facing larger, more urgent and more complex humanitarian emergencies than ever before — and this requires more humanitarian aid. But, crucially, we also concluded that this must not come at the expense of our commitment to long-term, sustainable development.

Humanitarian relief is often an easier sell for politicians under pressure from their electorates: it’s seen as providing life-saving assistance and better at keeping people in their own contexts. Indeed, both the increased allocation of ODA to refugee costs and the rise in humanitarian expenditure evidenced in Norway’s draft budget can be seen as part of a new European trend that puts aid at the service of managing migration flows. Put simply, more and more aid is now about stemming the flows of refugees.

Such an approach is a long way from the kind of solidarity, shared responsibility and long-term approach to development partnerships that is supposed to characterize our new sustainable development era. In so many countries, we are beginning to lose the political argument for a principled commitment to a minimum 0.7 percent of GNI spent on aid. Instead the debate is being overtaken by tactics: how much aid is really justified, and how and where should it be spent. Increasingly voluble government rhetoric in the global north is seeking to cast development priorities as synonymous with national interests. Tactical, political bidding wars are drowning out the previously watertight moral case for making good on our longstanding commitments.

There is no doubt that the development landscape is shifting rapidly: middle income countries are rich but have large poor populations; there are new donors on the scene; sustainable development is now a universal agenda; and the refugee crisis is blurring the distinction between foreign policy and domestic priorities.

It is proving difficult to navigate this landscape; to find a middle ground between protecting what is good at the heart of our current system and branching out into new and unchartered territory. And, already, the tensions are clear to see.  

Last summer, as the numbers of refugees arriving in Norway reached their peak, the government took NOK 4.2 billion — or roughly $500 million — from its international aid budget to deal with the influx. The instinct to protect our own populations from the negative impacts of global instabilities is entirely natural, but dealing with the ongoing tide of refugees must be as much about addressing the drivers of fragility, conflict and insecurity, as it can be about delivering services to people arriving on our own shores. Sometimes prioritizing narrow, short-term self interests can be a false economy.

I could say the same thing about the increasing corporatization of development. In Norway, increasing amounts of aid — NOK 15.2 billion by the end of 2015 — is being channeled through Norfund, the government’s main instrument for tackling poverty through private sector development. This kind of market-based approach works as long as you see development as being about program delivery alone. But development is about much more than efficient, technocratic delivery; it’s about empowerment, strengthening citizen voices and democratic institutions. Development is also a political project.

Norway is pouring more funds into emergency humanitarian relief and reducing the number of countries to which it will provide development assistance from 116 countries to 85 countries. With this, there is concern that social movements critical role in the equitable development of countries will suffer. As the only sector that can build lasting resilience in a country long after other aid actors have departed, civil society often acts as the buffer that prevents the unraveling of democracy. Last year, CIVICUS recorded serious violations of civic space in 109 countries: now is not the time for Norway — or any other country — to renege on its commitments to protect and strengthen the rights of civil society to mobilize for change.

This budget was an opportunity for Norway to signal how it intends to navigate rapidly evolving development priorities and take on its own part of our new, shared responsibilities to achieve a more just and sustainable world. At a time when aid budgets are coming under almost relentless attack, Norway’s determination to buck the trend is to be applauded and I hope the country’s parliament supports this principled move. But I hope too that Norway further invests in long-term development. Our new development landscape stretches before us to 2030 and beyond; we cannot successfully find our way by dealing with one obstacle at a time.

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About the author

  • Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

    Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah has been chief executive at Oxfam GB since January 2019. He previously led CIVICUS, the Johannesburg-based alliance of civil society organizations with members in more than 180 countries. Prior to that, he spent four years as director general of the Royal Commonwealth Society.