The Development of Development: 50 Years of Sida

Sida has been operating in the world for over 50 years and leaves behind a great history of controversies, successes and failures. Yet the history of Sida is not only the story of a Swedish governmental agency, it is also the story of how development has changed during the decades, how the very idea of development has, quite frankly, developed. This is some parts of that story.

Road construction in Mozambique, a part of a development programme. Photo: Victor Brott, Sida

Really, the 1960s could be seen as the start of the global development era. Not only did President Kennedy initiate the Peace Corps, an ‘army’ made up of civilian volunteers going abroad to support socio-economic progress, but things were also starting to move in Europe. In Sweden, a working group led by Prime Minister Olof Palme released what they called the ‘Aid Bible’, a proposition for future global development. Among many proposals was that of establishing a governmental agency, coordinating Swedish development efforts. And, accordingly so, a few years later Sida – the Swedish International Development Authority – was born.


At its early days, Sida was a rather modest agency employing around 50 people. Looking back, it is easy to see the deficiencies it had compared to what we generally think about modern day development policies. Local offices in developing countries were lacking, meaning coordination was, if not to say impossible, difficult. Its policies were in essence Eurocentric, in other words, based on how Swedes perceived the needs of the poor, not what they themselves wanted. This, however, was about to change in the 1970s.


In the 1970s and the 1980s, Sida policies generally started to move toward what we today would call ‘development cooperation’ – where beneficiary countries began to have a say in where money should be spent. Donors and recipients were looked upon as partners, working together towards long-term development goals and specific three-year country programmes were established. Yet, this period was not without scandals. As a response to the concerns raised around the issue of population growth in the 1980s, Sida enrolled in a programme called IPP2 – the objective of which was to sterilise poor Indian women. Approximately 8 million Indians were sterilised in the name of family planning, many against their will. After over 100 Sida employees wrote a letter in protest to the steering committee, the agency eventually dropped out of the programme. Yet, how many of the 8 million sterilisations Sida was responsible for remains unclear.


Entering the 1990s the development agenda started to expand and Sida was thriving. The India-debacle was long forgotten and 5 broad goals for aid were set up: Economic growth, equality, independence, democratisation and environmental protection. However, one major problem was imminent. Debt in developing countries had been starting to escalate and states were paying more in interest-rates than their entire budgets. Although Sida argued for debt relief, the international system with the World Bank and IMF forced states into adopting structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), basically draining developing states. This characterised the 1990s, particularity in Africa, and would eventually be referred to in the development literature as ‘the lost decade’.

The Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, perhaps illustrates the ‘lost decade’ very well. Photo: Johan Lindskog, Sida

Nevertheless, Sida continued to expand and doubled its staff at the turn of the millennial. However, then-minister Gunilla Carlsson proposed in 2007 to decrease the number of receiving countries to 33 instead of what was then over 100 in order to specify and focus Sida’s work. This was easier said than done, a few years later Sida still operated in the same amount of countries as before.


Despite economic problems in 2010 where several employees were forced to leave (though a few were sacked due to misconduct), Sida continued to operate and focused in 2011-2014 to increase its openness and transparency – releasing a website called Open Aid where the aid process could be tracked. So, after over 50 years of development, a lot has changed in the world. The history of Sida truly characterises this, or in other words, it illustrated the very development of development.

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Categories: SIDA

About Fredrik Björksten

Fredrik is currently studying for a Bachelor's in Development Studies at Lund University. He is 22 years old, originally from Gothenburg, Sweden and has world politics, especially including the United States senate and the French presidential office, as his main interests. Fredrik will study in Bordeaux, France during 2018.

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