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Ministry report on foreign aid urges Finland to boost long-term commitments

The report said Finland achieved significant results in countries it helped, but underscored the hardships development aid programmes face due to budget cuts.

Nepalilaispoika juo kaivosta.
File photo of boy drinking water from a Finnish-funded well in western Nepal. Image: Ensio Karjalainen / Yle

The Foreign Ministry's fresh report on the results of Finland's development cooperation work painted a generally rosy picture. Initiatives by Foreign Minister Timo Soini and the ministry - like helping to protect women's rights - were lauded, saying that their efforts helped some 1.5 million women and girls to receive sexual and reproductive health services.

The report, issued on Thursday, said Finnish aid also helped young girls around the world begin school earlier and assisted women to become entrepreneurs.

However, the report also noted that while their efforts were successful, development aid funding has dropped over the past few years. Many experts, like Jonas Biström from Kepa, an umbrella group of global development NGOs, say that Finland should increase its spending on international aid, rather than reduce it.

"The work of [the aid programmes] get an 'A-minus' but the resources get a 'D,'" Biström said. He said the quality of Finland's aid work has not worsened but the scale of the programme has.

"There do not appear to be any major problems, but the budget cuts have reduced the capacity to do the work that was earlier thought to be effective and good," he said.

Budget cuts made by Sipilä administration

The budget cuts Biström and the ministry refer to include ones made by the current government, headed up by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, a centre-right administration which is coming to the end of its four-year term next spring.

Before Sipilä's government, Finland's funding for development aid gradually increased by two percent a year during the 2010s.

Since then, however, Sipilä's administration has been regularly cutting development aid funding, sometimes radically.

In 2016, Sipilä's government slashed some 40 percent of budgetary spending towards development aid.

Finland is a signatory to the UN's Millennium Development Goals, and has pledged to put 0.7 percent of its GDP towards development aid funding.

However, in 2018 Finland contributed just 0.38 percent of its GDP to development aid coffers, leaving the country far from reaching that goal this year.

"The cuts led to the premature cancellation of more than 100 projects. They led to a reduction of personnel and knowledge and also hurt the effects that aid groups can have in the long term," Biström said.

He criticised the report's authors for their focus on women and children, saying that Finland has not been a particularly eager defender of females.

"The current government has talked about women and children as a central area of focus at the same time they have cut funding towards these groups by 44 percent," Biström said.

Cuts "weakened" Finnish aid operations

Finland's largest development cooperation group Finn Church Aid's Head of Advocacy and Global Ecumenical Relations Katri Suomi said that the budget cuts are not really mentioned in the report.

"Most of the ongoing projects were started before the budget cuts, so their real effects may be seen in the next report," Suomi said.

"But one must admit that [the cuts] are mentioned in this report, and they say that they have weakened Finland's aid operations and the credibility of our work," she said.

However, Suomi said she still approves of the work that has been getting done with available resources, saying that Finnish aid workers do a very good job.

"We should have a longer-term policy and not see resourcing amounts change after each parliamentary election. At the moment, many projects remain dependent on new governments approving them, even though they have already started," Suomi said.

A Foreign Ministry press release on the report issued Thursday noted the constraints that the budget cuts have created.

"The cuts in development cooperation appropriations have made it more difficult to modify activities in a flexible manner and less results have been achieved. The report shows that there is room for improvement in the sustainability of results and the achievement of the desired wide impacts in societies," the ministry's press release said.

Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Anne-Mari Virolainen said one of the key messages of the report was a need for long-term commitment.

"Changes in society take time. In the coming years, it is important to adhere to the kind of work that produces good results. At the same time, development cooperation must renew itself to be able to respond to changes in the operating environments," Virolainen added.

The development aid report is the first of its kind issued by the ministry, and is scheduled to be discussed in Parliament this month.

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