THE Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) through the Swedish government has provided development assistance to Zimbabwe in different sectors such as health, education and culture since the 1950s.
Last Friday, their developmental initiatives focused on refurbishment and equipping of the Harare City Library. NewsDay senior parliamentary reporter Veneranda Langa (ND) caught up with Swedish Ambassador to Zimbabwe Lars Ronnas (LR) and Sida director-general Charlotte Petri Gornitzka (CPG) at the Harare City Library official opening following a refurbishment worth over $1 million and discussed different issues with them. The following are excerpts of the interview.
ND: What is Sida and how have you been working with Zimbabwe in different projects?
CPG: Sida works on behalf of the Swedish government in its bilateral development cooperation work. In Zimbabwe the programmes that we focus on are in the fields of health, education, trade and social protection. We also have been involved in supporting the new constitution which was recently concluded and passed. We have distributed funds to programmes to the tune of $35 million annually.
LR: The ties or relations between Zimbabwe and Sweden date back from the 1950s when Zimbabweans came to Sweden to speak on issues of racial discrimination then. We engaged with Zimbabwean churches and trade unions and these engagements translated into developmental policies. In the mid-1970s, Sweden started to provide some humanitarian support towards the liberation struggle, not only to Zimbabwe, but to other countries such as Angola, Mozambique and later against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
ND: What is the attitude of the Swedish government towards the government at the moment, especially after the launch of the ZimAsset economic blue print and pertaining to recent remarks by Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa that focus will now be on restoration of relations with the West?
LR: We welcome the presentation by the Minister of Finance who was in line with the policies and programmes that are now in this policy document, the Zimbabwe Asset. We may have disagreements here and there and had disagreements in the past, but now we want to begin to understand what kind of policies this government (Zanu PF) will embark on. The new government is only two months into being and we are still trying to understand the course it will take.
ND: What exactly do you want Zimbabwe to do in order for you to remove the restrictive measures imposed on some individuals and companies?
LR: These restrictive measures were introduced because of the concerns Sweden and the European Union countries had. You might have seen that over the past two years these measures have been reduced and everything takes time. For us as Sweden we have always wanted values such as respect of individuals’ human rights, rule of law and political rights to be upheld. So, this is something that we hope to see and that we are looking at. The cornerstone is that we rely on international law and cooperation.
ND: Do you see Sweden playing an important role in mending relations between Zimbabwe and the EU?
LR: It is important that each country works on its own relationships and Sweden is a member of the EU and for us it is also an important tenant of our foreign policy to work within the common EU policies. We express part of our foreign policies through common foreign policies based on concerns of all 28 members of the EU.
ND: But, are you still going to provide humanitarian assistance whenever it is needed and even if some of the tenets of international law have been broken?
LR: We have always provided humanitarian relief to Zimbabwe for the past decades and whenever there is serious need to do so we have swiftly responded. Humanitarian support should always come to alleviate suffering and there should not be any political connotations involved. We have also provided developmental aid over the past years and worked fully with the United Nations agencies such as Unicef to support the Health Transition and Education Transition Funds and we still want to remain engaged with Zimbabwe in humanitarian support.
CPG: Sida also works with other partners in different projects on health and education. Sweden has increased its support towards projects over the past years. The reason why I am in Zimbabwe right now is that as Sida we are now in the process of reviewing our developmental aid strategies in Zimbabwe. It is important for us to review and reflect on the situation as we move forward so that we know what role to play. We want to look into the future and see what we can do to provide developmental aid.
ND: Have you managed to identify any areas so far?
CPG: It is my first time in Zimbabwe and I cannot say I have seen a lot yet. I have visited some of the projects and we have been working intensively with Unicef on child protection. Based on the analysis that the embassy is doing we will be more informed in coming up with strategies on how to work in Zimbabwe. That is why we were here today promoting education and opening the Harare City Library refurbishment project which is a sign that something is happening. Everyone at this event was talking about job creation and we need to reflect on how we can then make this to happen. We also need to focus on women empowerment.
LR: The Swedish Embassy has also provided support to civic society. As Ambassador sometimes, I am a bit distressed by assertions that civic society groups are anti-government. To us they are not anti-government, but they are supposed to be complementing government in developmental issues in order to enrich society. That is why we have been funding educational and health programmes through Unicef.
ND: What are your comments about reports that there is politicisation of food aid in some areas in the country?
LR: Such reports are unfortunate and serious and should be investigated and looked at. Humanitarian assistance should be distributed on the basis of needs and not on the basis of what political party one belongs to. If those allegations are true then they should be looked into and addressed.
ND: What do you say about the Harare City Library project?
LR: Apart from supporting the renovations, the Swedish government has also contributed books — some of them are new editions while others date as far back as 1945. Reading may not be a game changer, but it is a life changer as new perspectives are brought about and it is an opening to the world of other cultures, and appeals to one’s empathy, language as well as promotes a sense of togetherness. Reading is one of the real pleasures of life.
CPG: For Sweden it is important to support culture in Zimbabwe because it is one of the pillars that determine what a country is. It is now up to the different stakeholders to engage, invest, and come up with ideas to fill this library with different things to make it a modern library. We want people to use Internet and social media and read different books and newspapers in this library. The library can also generate income through activities such as public debates and exhibitions.