The future of Finnish development cooperation: A conversation with Heidi Hautala

Finland's Minister for International Development Heidi Hautala. Photo by: / CC BY-NC-SA

Finland was one of few donor countries that had steadily increased the percentage of its official development assistance. For several years, the country seemed poised to achieve the target ODA/gross national income ratio of 0.7 percent by 2015 until the recent economic downturn forced the newly appointed Finnish government to re-evaluate its budget priorities.

Funding programs on development cooperation and meeting Finland’s international aid commitments are just some of the challenges the nation’s new Minister for International Development Heidi Hautala now faces. Hautala and the rest of Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen’s Cabinet were formally appointed by President Tarja Halonen in June 2011.

In a conversation with Devex at the sidelines of the 2011 European Development Days in Warsaw, Poland, last December, Hautala discussed the overall direction Finland’s development ministry is taking and stressed the need for a human rights-based approach to development cooperation — one that could present new roles and responsibilities for nongovernmental organizations and the private sector.

Finland is going through a major change in its development policy. What are your priorities?

Every four years, a new Finnish government is revising its development strategy and we are just in the, let’s say, final stage of having to decide on our priorities. We have a very inclusive process. A lot of civil society and private sector people have been involved in the consultations to ensure the best possible outcome. [A participatory approach] brings about the best ideas. The whole ministry was involved [in the process] and now the question is how to set our priorities. Obviously, for many years we have been enjoying ever-growing finances into development when our contribution, measured in [gross domestic product], was steadily growing to [reach] 0.7 percent, which we set as a target for 2015. But now, for the first time, we are not proceeding.

In relation to the news of the budget constraints and austerity, the budget has still increased and will be then frozen by 2013 and 2014. We need to ensure additional financing for development in order to proceed toward the 0.7 percent [target] by 2015, which is not as assured as it was before the austerity budget. But there’s a political commitment to [do this].

Are you looking for innovative financing solutions?

Yes, we are. There is a political commitment to spend the income from direct greenhouse gas emissions auctions for development so that we can manage our international commitments. This is an opportunity for us to see where our focus and priorities will be. Following our strength in development policy, we certainly can see where Finland is expected to bring results and new ideas, especially in the field of good governance and transparency — there are many expectations on that — and quality education, especially vocational training and higher education. I think the expectations are very high and we have to see how to [meet them]. Then, there’s the gender dimension in all development policies. I’d also like to mention that perhaps, we can [develop] some methods to climate-proof our development — both for programs and projects. So these are areas where, I believe, we have shown some strength and need to continue to be strong.

Then, there is always the question of how to define a new approach and I am very much committed to putting in place a kind of systemic understanding of the human rights-based approach to development.

What are the challenges in employing a human rights-based approach to development?

I think, of course, development is very much about bringing cultural, social and economic rights to people and there is also the U.N. Declaration on the Right to Development.

Development has to be seen as a rights-based issue or a process that [upholds the] rights of people. But I would say that the problem, perhaps, is that development cooperation has been very much seen as separate from the overall effort to promote democracy and rule of law. Political and civil rights are very difficult because governments that are violating those rights are unwilling to discuss them with donors.

How do you envision this new approach?

First of all, it’s important to continue to work in the fields of economic, social and cultural rights. That’s clear. Concerning political and civil rights, I believe we have to rely on the international norms and standards which most countries have at least signed or even ratified. I think, in a political dialogue with recipient or partner government, it is very correct to talk about the need to fulfill international commitments and this of course applies to everyone. It also applies to donor countries. They also must adhere to those commitments. Otherwise, there will be the usual story of imposing double standards.

We can use our tradition and experience on the rights-based approach. Finland is a strong promoter of good governance standards so I believe that good governance is something that is also perhaps a little bit less provocative than directly talking about certain political or civil rights. But good governance, for me, very much includes the whole issue of accountability and transparency, which means that it is impossible to deny how important the framework for an accountable, transparent governing structure is.

There are new ways to the rights-based approach and I think good governance is [an integral part of an] overall framework that we have to use. Combating corruption is an important issue. I have been always a strong promoter of access to information and transparency of governing structures. So I believe these are also the cheapest ways to control and eradicate corruption.

In this new approach, do you think the way you work with your partners — NGOs for example — will change?

Yes but I don’t see a need for some kind of revolutionary change because I see all of these elements already quite well-embedded into the Finnish approach. But they just have to be more focused and they need to be highlighted more. For instance, civil society. According to the new government’s platform, we are going to increase financing for civil society.

In Finland, at least, [NGO initiatives] are seen almost like a guarantee that there will be public support for spending taxpayers’ money on development because they are quite good advocates for development. But I think there’s a more strategic view to what NGOs can achieve. For instance, we have started some partnerships with the U.S. Agency for International Development on how to promote the rights of people with disabilities in some African countries. In Busan, we had a joint event on this because the U.S. discovered that Finland has been very smart in the way it has supported Finnish NGOs that represent people with disabilities. At best, this leads to a kind of overall upgrading of the status of persons with disabilities, which are 15 percent of the world’s population. So one out of seven [people] — and anyone can become a person with disability anytime. So, I would like to see NGOs not only help the poor in recipient countries but also really to change the policies of the countries.

Finland stressed how crucial a results-based approach to development cooperation is. What strategies are you putting into practice to improve results?

I’m afraid I’m still on the learning process about this but, of course, after Busan, one has to recognize the importance of the new transparency initiative. For sure, in order to have public oversight and accountability on aid, it’s necessary to publish what one donates and also this has to be applied to the recipients of aid. I think these kinds of accountability mechanisms will be very important.

Could there also be a change in priorities in terms of the countries where you operate?

Yes, but that’s only one element. The main issue there is that we have [had] too many interventions in order to manage well. That’s something that decreases our aid and development effectiveness. But yes, for sure, I think we have to see that perhaps there’s a sort of limit to how many partner countries we can have and also we can note here that, for instance, a country like Vietnam and some South American countries are already becoming lower-middle income or even middle-income countries. We will have to introduce a new kind of cooperation — economic instruments [suited for these countries] and where the private sector is involved.

What issues do you face in involving the private sector?

[The] contradiction that’s difficult to solve is that companies find more opportunities in middle-income countries. Of course, our priority will be — especially in our bilateral cooperation — LDCs. Companies often find it easier to work in a country like Thailand or even China. [The Finnish] public is permanently asking why [we] give credit guarantees to companies operating in China. I think that needs to be solved and I am not exactly sure how but we have to refine our instruments also.

Are there specific sectors in low-income countries where private companies can play a crucial role?

I can see that in Africa, information and communication technologies — mobile technologies — are creating conditions [that enable] people to master their own lives much better and Finland is known as a country that has developed good ICT solutions. Here we can certainly bring in our ICT companies and experts. For instance, I would like us to see if we could advise the African Union but the resources to implement all of that are very small. So I would like to see our experts help with that.

Education is one of the priority sectors. What are your future plans in this area?

We have quite consciously decided to support education mainly through multilateral organizations because aid through multilateral organizations is actually going to increase. It’s also an attempt to reduce fragmentation. In the education and health sectors, we have found that multilateral organizations and the U.N. or some partnerships are very effective.

We also have successful bilateral approaches. The possibilities for children with disabilities to go to school has been one of our focus programs in Ethiopia and it was very much appreciated by the Ethiopian government, which is now trying to include this approach into their education system.

The European Union is in a complex crisis. What future do you envision for EU development policy? What role will Finland play in EU development?

I hope that gradually all the EU member states realize that they need to give higher value to international development. As you know, I think it [is] a minority of EU countries that have ministers of international development or development cooperation. It is still not very much a priority for [EU] countries. It’s usually a sort of [footnote] in their foreign policy framework. But I can see that some countries have given more priority to [international] development.

It is good [that Italy has now a minister for development]. Then, there will be more of us because I can see that the ones that have a stronger mandate and the higher status are also the most proactive and there’s quite a lot of cooperation between the more proactive countries. And Finland certainly likes to see itself as one of them. Also, we find like-minded countries — not only the Nordic countries but also countries like the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ireland and others — very interesting to be dealing with. So, yes, I hope there will be more.

What specific steps should the EU take to improve its development policy?

The two communications that [European Commissioner for Development Andris] Pieblags has given in the last two months I think are very good bases for revising the EU approach. One on general framework and the other on budget support. I think this will be a good way to upgrade the EU’s development policy.

I have just looked at the human rights strategy that [EU foreign affairs chief Catherine] Ashton released. It’s perhaps a little bit overdue but if the results are good, I think that also raises the possibility of integrating development and human rights better.

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About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.