Sweden has, historically speaking, been a nation that prides itself on being at the forefront of issues related to gender equality, climate justice and international aid. It has contributed the highest level of international aid per capita in the world and it was the first nation to implement a feminist foreign policy. The country has always looked outwards and not inwards. Until now.
In recent years, the polarisation among Sweden’s people has increased and the political climate has hardened. The election of a new government coalition consisting of several parties on the right side last month reinforced the image that there are political winds blowing that protect the local over the global and that put gender equality much further down the agenda.
What’s clear with this new government is a major deprioritisation in matters that should warrant the highest degree of concern - girls' and women's rights, and climate justice.
Dismantling Sweden's feminist foreign policy
Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce a feminist foreign policy in 2014. The example has been followed by several other nations, including Spain, Germany and Mexico.
The feminist foreign policy has, among other things, contributed to Sweden taking a leading role in elevating the role of women and girls in peace processes and in pushing difficult issues such as a woman’s right to abortion in international talks. Here in Sweden, the policy has directed more resources to gender equality efforts, and to local organisations fighting for the rights of women and girls in the Global South. As a member of the European Union, Sweden was a leading force in the adoption of the Gender Action Plan III in 2020 by the Council, the equivalent at the EU level of a feminist foreign policy. More generally speaking, gender and women rights have been at the heart of their priorities at the EU level in terms of budget and trade and was instrumental in the efforts for gender mainstreaming across the EU policies.
When the new government took office, the newly appointed Foreign Minister Tobias Billström’s announcement was that the feminist foreign policy will be scrapped. This implicates that Sweden is now losing its first clear political framework to improve gender equality not only in this country but in the rest of the world.
Reduced focus on the climate
Climate disasters are destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions of people worldwide and we urgently need our governments to act now.
Despite the urgency and its serious effects, for the first time in 35 years, the new government has chosen to shut the Ministry of the Environment and instead place it under the Ministry of Industry, which strongly indicates how the climate issue is being deprioritised.
As we approach the UN’s climate summit COP27 next month, this is a shameful backwards step in showing our country's commitment to people, especially women and girls, in the Global South who are on the frontline of the climate crisis and are being hit hardest by increasingly frequent and severe climate disasters despite doing the least to cause them. While the European Parliament just voted in favour of additional finances for Loss and Damages, the Council, composed of Member States, has been until now reluctant and the shift in government in Sweden will not help build a progressive majority at the EU level.
Reduced aid budget
Sweden has always been a frontrunner in its foreign aid budget, committing to keep the figure above 1%. However, the introduction of the new government will see a drop in the amount of international aid it provides. According to the agreement, aid will be frozen at SEK 56 billion (€5 billion) over three years. This means a reduction of SEK 1.4 billion (€0.12 billion) compared to a year ago. Swedish aid then lands at 0.885% of GNI in 2023 (and even fewer the two following years). This is devastating news as aid plays such a crucial role in the work for girls’ and women's rights in the Global South.
All of these priorities risk having far-reaching and serious consequences, both in Sweden and globally.
Sweden's voice for global equality has, regardless of political sway, long been among the strongest in the world. However, with the new political agenda, there is a risk that Sweden's role as a progressive nation fighting for climate justice, gender equality and global solidarity could change over the next four years. For women and girls in the Global South who are fighting for their survival in the wake of climate change, poverty and conflicts, Sweden's choice of path may be among the worst that can happen.
This piece was co-written by Jennifer Vidmo Secretary General ActionAid International Sweden and Javier Garcia de la Oliva, Head of Country Engagement and Transformation at ActionAid International.