After visiting Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, this week, a group of 30 SI NGFL students went on to discuss civic rights at an NFO – after eating a delicious lunch in Gamla Stan, of course.
The group was met by Emelie Aho, a polisy advisor at Forum Syd, who held a presentation and discussion.
Emelie explained that Forum Syd is one of the largest aide development organizations in Stockholm, and that the organization works in three key ways: policy and advocacy work; its own projects throughout the globe; and distributing grants from SIDA to partner projects around the world.
“Forum Syd is a politically and religiously unaffiliated development aid organisation with around 160 member organisations from Swedish civil society,” the organization’s English language website states.
“Together we work with human and civil rights, and facilitate popular participation around the globe. Forum Syd was founded in 1995 and is the largest civil society platform in Sweden. We have offices in Stockholm and in five countries through which we provide direct support to local organisations on the ground. We mediate grants from Sida (the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) to Swedish organisations cooperating with local partners in 70 countries. Forum Syd also advocates for just and sustainable development.”
Through sub-granting funds from Sida, Forum Syd helps fund some 700 projects around the world each year.
But Forum Syd works in very specific ways. They don’t give funding to just anyone or any type of project.
“We give people the tools they need to make changes to society,” Emelie Aho explained. “So we don’t grant money to things like building schools – but instead grant for actually educating teachers.”
It’s the teachers, not empty school buildings, who can really make a change.
“Our work centres on enabling people to organise to claim their rights and take control of their lives; for it is only then that democracy can grow, resources can be distributed more fairly, and poverty can be reduced,” the organization’s website states.
Emelie also explained that an important aspect of Forum Syd’s work is that the project is driven and owned by the local community – not by Forum Syd.
“We help give them the tools to succeed. But the right way forward for sustainability is through community ownership. We educate community facilitators about how to create dialogues and thus change – to create an action plan with the local people, to tackle the issues that they care about most.”
Many students wondered how Forum Syd ensures that the funds are put to good use, particularly in countries where corruption is a major issue.
Emelie admitted it’s a challenge.
“We have super strict standards, and we have whole teams doing regular evaluations of the projects,” she said. “We set targets and indicators and check back regularly throughout the process.”
She also clarified that Forum Syd grants projects with will be self-sustaining in the long run – a project cannot be dependent on a grant from Forum Syd; the grant is just to help get the project going in the first place.
Emelie works with the issues of tax justice and tax flight as well – which at first glance may not seem like a major part of aid development. But it is, she said.
“Big corporations with production in poorer countries should be paying taxes in these countries, paying taxes there that benefit the whole society and help it to develop,” she explained. “Tax money should not leave the country.”
Another challenge is shrinking civic space – a negative trend happening all around the world, she said.
There are many ways shrinking civic space is visible in society. The Open Society Foundation describes it as follows:
“All around the world, active citizenship is under attack and the space for civic engagement is closing—not just in countries that have struggled under repressive or autocratic governments, but also in democracies with longstanding traditions of supporting freedom of expression. There are many different reasons for this shrinking of the public space.
In some countries, especially newer democracies or countries undergoing political transitions, those in power are fearful of civic activism. Seeing its power, officials in governments with no previous experience regulating political protests or public debates have come down with a heavy hand, erring on the side of preventing change rather than encouraging it.”
Violations of civic space are on the rise all around the world, Emelie said, and this is a problem.
It’s not enough for NGOs and volunteers to work for change; the authorities must also be involved, at least on some level.
“In an ideal world, Forum Syd wouldn’t need to exist,” Emelie explained. “If no one was marginalized we wouldn’t need to exist.”
But people are marginalized, and Forum Syd works to expand their civic space and help them claim their rights.
“We want to make change and help marginalized people claim their rights, but of course we cannot do that without dialogue,” she said.
Emelie hosted a discussion after the introduction, where all students contributed and engaged in passionate debate about the challenges the world faces and how to tackle them.
Emelie encouraged all of the SI NFGL members to get in touch if they wanted to know more, or if they were interested in volunteering or interning with a branch of Forum Syd or its many partners in the future.