Norway remains one of the world’s major contributors to foreign aid, donating more than 1 percent of gross national product to development projects every year. The new government minister in charge, though, is set to launch some major reforms, in how the aid is administered and in aid projects themselves.
“There are some new initiatives,” Development Minister Nikolai Astrup said during a meeting with foreign correspondents in Oslo Friday afternoon, where he shared thoughts along with Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide. He said there would still be “lots of continuity” in Norway’s efforts to support education, health programs and job creation in troubled areas abroad, but changes loom.
Astrup, from the Conservative Party, plans, for example, to engage the private sector in more specific aid efforts. Two of his first meetings this week were scheduled with the chief executive of the Aker industrial concern, Øyvind Eriksen, and with leaders of SN Power. Not only are they organizations with global operations, Aker is investing in marine research at a time when Astrup is keen on cleaning up the seas and especially tackling the problem of micro-plastics entering rivers and oceans around the world. That’s become a government priority.
Meanwhile a state investment fund aimed at providing capital for sustainble development projects in poor countries (Norfund) just reported a record year. “We are the new bistand (source of foreign aid),” claimed Norfund’s chief executive to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). Its financing of businesses in 30 countries in Africa, Asia and Central America is intent on making an important contribution to lifting countries out of poverty, and could report a 14 percent return on investment for 2017. Both the government and opposition parties in parliament think that investing in potentially profitable ventures in struggling areas amounts to better foreign aid than pure donations.
Astrup devoted most of his remarks on Friday to the government’s plans for promoting sustainable seas. As a maritime nation, Norway’s own economy has long been tied to the seas through its shipping, fishing and oil industries. “Given our history and reliance on the oceans ourselves,” Astrup said, “we need to take the lead.” He pointed to Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s initiative to establish the international, high-level International Panel on Building a Sustainable Ocean Economy, that will cooperate closely with the UN and other international initiatives. The goal is to increase global awareness of how responsible ocean management can help countries reach sustainable development goals.
While he claimed that ocean management is one of the most relevant issues in the world today, Astrup is also launching a new digital strategy for foreign aid efforts. He thinks more use of new technology will help more people, pointing out how the introduction of electronic tablets at an elementary school in Malawi is helping children learn arithmetic and how to read. New technology is developing new banking systems in Kenya, while mobile phones have long aided sole proprietors in Southeast Asia. He noted how even areas without electricity can use smart phones and solar technology to charge their batteries. He’s calling for more systematic and goal-oriented use of digital technology in foreign aid programs.
Norad a target of major reform
Closer to home, the reform-minded government in which Astrup serves also intends to reform how Norwegian foreign aid is distributed and monitored. Norway donated NOK 34.1 billion (USD 4.3 billion) in state-funded aid last year alone, with Syria receiving the most (NOK 1.7 billion) including emergency humanitarian aid.
Astrup, whose post has been re-attached to the foreign ministry, isn’t satisfied with how direct foreign aid is now handled through Norad, the state directorate for foreign development funding that was set up 50 years ago. He’s signaling what newspaper Dagsavisen recently called “dramatic” changes in foreign aid management.
Norad currently manages around NOK 10 billion in foreign aid every year, while the foreign ministry itself doles out around NOK 24 billion. Astrup is concerned about duplication of efforts and that officials at Norad can effectively end up setting policy. He thinks that should remain the responsibility of the government minister in charge. He also worries that as the sheer amount of foreign aid funds grows, the need for more control, management and monitoring grows as well.
Astrup thus wants to move most of the professional responsibility for foreign aid projects to the ministry itself, leaving Norad as a more technical agency in charge of issuing payments, controlling funding and evaluating their effectivness. He told foreign correspondents on Friday that Norad had assumed too many policy-making tasks over the years. “I would like to keep that closer (to the ministry),” he said, adding that the proposed changes “will affect how we organize our work.”
They’re not without controversy, with Norad employees worried that their professional operations will be gutted. There’s reportedly great uneasiness among Norad’s 230 employees working in an office building on Bygdøy allé, one of Oslo’s most fashionable streets.
“Folks aren’t talking about much else,” Marianne Haugh of the labour organization representing many of them told Dagsavisen earlier this month. They point to what they believe are good results achieved by Norad, and consider themselves to be foreign aid professionals providing good results at low administrative costs.
Astrup is aware of the unrest, and has said the ministry will set up a “project group” to evaluate the consequences. It will include employees from both the ministry and Norad. He already envisions that many of Norad’s “development professionals” will be offered jobs in the ministry itself, while some ministry workers may be transferred to Norad.
He denied the plans would ultimately result in a shutdown of Norad. “Norad is a tool, not a goal in itself,” he said. “This is about getting the best possible results and the best possible professional competence in the area.”