Sweden’s Ambassador to Cambodia, Björn Häggmark sat down with Khmer Times writer Harrison White in an exclusive interview to discuss his country’s decision to refocus bilateral funding by 2021 and what effect this will have on the embassy’s ‘soft-power’ influence. The conversation also covered Sweden’s new objective strategy for regional development cooperation and what the future holds for Swedish – Cambodian relations.
KT: What is the history of Swedish development aid in Cambodia and why have you decided to phase-out all bilateral funding by 2021?
Häggmark: Sweden was one of the first countries to provide assistance to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge was ousted. This support was mainly food aid, primary education, agriculture, construction of primary roads and demining.
Then in the 1990s, Sweden gradually shifted towards long-term development cooperation with an overreaching goal to reduce poverty, providing thus far, over $24 million in grants on a yearly basis. Advancing gender equality has been part of our efforts and still remains so.
However, as you know in June this year, the Swedish Government announced it had decided to refocus its development cooperation with Cambodia on initiatives for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. These activities will now be steered by a new objective in Sweden’s strategy for regional development cooperation in Asia and the Pacific region. Activities in the areas of education, climate and environment will be phased out until mid-2021.
The decision, according to my government, was due to the democratic space, respect for human rights, including freedom of speech, and the possibility for civil society and the media to operate freely as these have been severely restricted in Cambodia in recent years.
KT: Has the announcement to phase-out bilateral funding affected the embassy’s ‘soft-power’ influence, so far?
Häggmark: Sweden continues with bilateral support to Cambodia, but with a stronger focus. Already in 2017, due to developments in Cambodia, Sweden announced it will withdraw direct support to the Cambodian government, with the one exception being education. Later, Sweden has on several occasions, expressed concern about the reduced democratic space in Cambodia, and situations of intimidation of persons and organisations making use of rights and freedoms. This concerns remain. Hence, it should have come as no real shock when the Swedish government in June, adapted the development cooperation and made the announcement. So, as to whether the embassy has experienced any ‘fallout’, the answer is no.
That said, I did take great care in June to meet with many Cambodian government representatives to explain our position and listened to their reactions and questions. I also appreciate that there is an interest in our continued engagement and the hope that despite difference of opinions, dialogue on how to overcome challenges will follow.
From these discussions, I believe there is knowledge in Cambodia about Sweden’s history here and how we have contributed to the Kingdom in the past. In addition, I believe that people understand that Sweden is open about our objectives and that we do not have a hidden agenda.
Sweden is a part of the European Union, but the decision in June was made by the Swedish government. However, it is in line with the EU policy to promote democracy and human rights. I want to stress that the decision is based upon norms and principles and is not in support or opposition of a specific person or party.
KT: What is the new objective for Sweden’s strategy for regional development cooperation in Cambodia?
Häggmark: Swedish development cooperation is steered by three types of strategies; global, regional and bilateral, and until June, Cambodia’s funding was steered through a bilateral strategy. What the Swedish Government has now done is make Cambodia’s bilateral cooperation part of its overall regional strategy in Asia and the Pacific. One aim is to achieve synergies, for example in the area of climate change, environment and biodiversity.
So it is important to note that while Sweden is cutting direct government to government funding, we are still providing bilateral assistance.
The funding will now be channelled through the regional strategy’s ‘bilateral window’ for Cambodia to receive specific funds for programmes that will assist our previously mentioned direction. In addition, the government has also decided to increase this funding by more than a third from 80 million kronor ($8.9 million) to 120 million kronor ($13.4 million) per year.
This money will be given to non-state actors that make rights holders aware of their rights and enhance their capacity to express opinions, take part in preparing decisions on laws and distribution of resources, and holding authorities accountable. This is in line with Cambodia’s obligations and commitments under the constitution, which was rightly celebrated recently, and international conventions. We intend to continue the support to the OHCHR of the UN and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the ECCC.
KT: What is your hope for the future of Swedish development aid in Cambodia, and the region?
Häggmark: The Swedish government upholds democracy and the protection of human rights at home, in Cambodia and around the world. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a trend in the region and around the world where democracy is fading and human rights are being violated.
It is the hope of the Swedish government that through constructive dialogue and effective development cooperation, we can continue to protect and restore democracy and ensure human rights for all.
As I mentioned Sweden has been working with and assisting Cambodia during the last four decades and our relationship will continue to be strong now as well as the future. Our two countries have common challenges to address, such as climate change and weakening of multilateral cooperation.