Strategic choices and Norwegian priorities

Minister of International Development Nikolai Astrup's Speech at the Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) Programme Meeting 27 August.

Thank you so much for the invitation. It is a great pleasure to be here, and to meet all the country directors of one of our key civil society partners.

In my assigned minutes, I would like to talk about a few dilemmas as well as our main political priorities.

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The general backdrop is that – despite many and frequent setbacks - for the vast majority of people, the world keeps getting a better place.

Never before have so many people experienced substantial progress as they have in recent decades. The proportion of poor in the world is falling. Extreme poverty has been halved since 2000. More children are attending school. Polio will soon have been eradicated. The HIV pandemic has been reduced by a third. More children than ever are living to see their fifth year. And many countries have taken great steps in the last few decades to become free democracies that safeguard human rights.

At the same time, a new front has emerged: Countries we had learnt to see as ardent defenders of equality and human rights, that are now advocating policies that promote nationalism, protectionism, discrimination and distrust of the international multilateral system. Rather than pushing the agenda forwards, in some fields we now have to fight hard in order to maintain a consensus that we established 25 years or more ago.  

Norway provides one percent of its GNI to international development. That is a lot, compared to almost all other donor nations. However, we are fully aware of the limitations of international development assistance. Assistance alone cannot create lasting growth and prosperity. Assistance alone cannot prevent war, conflict and migration. But applied in the right way, development assistance can contribute to mobilising the domestic resources that are key to creating lasting, sustainable development.

Total net global ODA was 146 billion dollars in 2017. That is certainly a lot of money – in fact, three times as much as Apple’s net profit in the same year – but it is still small change compared to the amounts that could potentially be mobilised from developing countries’ own domestic resource bases.

Just to illustrate my point, in Bangladesh, Telenor – Norway’s largest telecom company - has paid NOK 23.3 billion in taxes over the last 10 years. During the same period, Norway has allocated nearly one billion in bilateral aid. This example is by no means unique, even though the figures may be particularly striking.

The influential development scholar Paul Collier has written that: 

“In sheer quantitative terms the key problem for the bottom billion is not that their natural assets have been plundered. Rather, it is that they have not yet been discovered.”

Making sure that developing countries can benefit from their resources - as they are discovered - is one of the key priorities of our development policy.

Development assistance used in a smart, strategic way, can make important contributions to creating lasting growth and prosperity, but without domestic resource mobilisation and ownership of the challenges, we will not get there.

This thinking lies at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are the guidelines for our development policy. They do not focus primarily on aid and assistance, but on domestic resource mobilisation and partnerships.

Concentration

Before I get to our main priorities, a few words on the policy changes we have made. Our point of departure is that in order to make an impact we cannot be everything to everybody, everywhere. We were in too many countries, in too many thematic fields with too many partners. We have now:

  • Reduced the number of countries where we have activities.
  • Reduced the number of cooperation agreements
  • Concentrated our activities on thematic fields where we have a comparative advantage.

Thematic priorities

  • Education
  • Health
  • Climate change, oceans and the environment
  • Job creation and renewable energy
  • Humanitarian assistance.

The Knowledge Bank: Pooling the fields where we have special expertise:

  • Oil for Development
  • Tax for Development
  • Statistics
  • Fish for Development
  • Higher education and research
  • Gender policy
  • Renewable energy
  • Oceans (including the fight against marine pollution, plastics)
  • Digitalisation

Humanitarian assistance

  • To address major humanitarian challenges, Norway has increased its humanitarian budget by more than 50 per cent since 2013. Our new humanitarian strategy will be presented to you later today by Leni Stenseth, head of our Section for Humanitarian Assistance.
  • During my 7 months as Minister of Development, I’ve noticed that many humanitarian crises tend to be long lasting, and that humanitarian actors that should ideally move on to the next crisis, instead get stuck in situations and with tasks that perhaps would be better carried out by development actors. I do not think that there is any quick fix here, but close interaction and communication between the various actors is probably key. It would be very interesting to hear your views on this.

Civil society under pressure

In many places, we are seeing a disturbing development with regard to civil society organisations’ working conditions.

This summer we received a new evaluation from NIBR, the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research, commissioned by NORAD. It says that over the last 20 years, civil society organisations (CSOs) promoting democracy and human rights have experienced increasingly restrictive operating environments across the globe, varying from legal restrictions and physical violence to subtler forms of intimidation. This is appalling and something that makes us very worried.

  • A strong civil society is a key feature of any democratic social order and a goal in its own right.
  • Civil society is key to achieving the sustainable development goals. Civil society organisations can often reach out to areas or groups that may be hard to reach for others.
  • Civil society can play a central role in development, in particular when civil society efforts complement rather replace government efforts. What we have achieved together with NPA in the field of landmines is a case in point.
  • The shrinking space for civil society has become a global trend. The offenders can be governments, business actors or extremist groups. It would be very interesting to hear your experiences and views on this trend.

We also know that national and local civil society organisations have difficulty competing with international NGOs for resources, or function as sub-contractors to larger international NGOs. A central question therefore becomes: how can we support the local voices, the organisations that know their communities and are able to put theory into practice?

Principles for support to civil society

I expect you are well aware of our new principles for support to civil society, launched this summer. The seven principles are Sustainability, Inclusion, Partnership, Legitimacy, Accountability, Cost Effectiveness and Context Sensitivity.

Presidency of the Mine Ban Convention

Let me mention one last issue that goes to the core of NPA’s activities, of which you have a very strong sense of ownership, and which is also of great importance to us. In November, Norway will be taking over the presidency of the Mine Ban Convention. Our objective is an ambitious one: to bring renewed energy to our collective efforts to implement all aspects of the treaty.

Our strategic partnership with NPA for many years has ensured that Norway is more than just a major donor. We have been able to bring your field experience into the conference rooms, to push for progress in global mine action.

Tomorrow, ambassador Brattskar from Geneva will come for further discussions on the issue. Let me just say that as one of the most prominent global humanitarian mine action organisations, with operations across 25 countries, NPA plays a unique role. We very much look forward to working closely with you during the Norwegian presidency.

Thank you.

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