From August 2008 Sweden will no longer have an embassy in Laos. The Swedish government has decided to face out the bilateral development assistance to Laos. Consequently the Embassy of Sweden Vientiane will be transformed to a section office.
Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy of Sweden Vientiane, AnnLis Åberg regrets that the bilateral development cooperation between Sweden and Laos cannot continue.
“Laos is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Personally I would have preferred if we could have continued for a few more years. We have been here for more than 30 years, so I think Sweden has a comparative advantage,” she says. But from now on the main purpose of the Swedish representation is to face out Sida’s (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) projects in Laos, which mainly have been concentrated on education, infrastructure, good governance, and natural resources.
“Because the embassy in Laos mainly handles development aid, we cannot justify having an embassy in Laos if we don’t have a bilateral cooperation programme,” AnneLis Åberg explains. The embassy will from 15th of August 2008 be transformed to a section office, which will be in charge of the facing out Sida’s activities. All projects will either be closed down or have been taken over by other donors by 2011.
Consular cases such as issue of visas will from that date on either be handled from the Embassy of Sweden Bangkok or by other European Union countries in Laos. “But with Sweden’s decision to leave, only three EU countries are left in Laos,” she says.
The reason for the close down of Swedish development aid to Laos is due to a general cut down in Sida’s activities. “The Swedish government has decided to focus its development aid on fewer countries, ” AnnLis Åberg says. “Out of the 70 countries that today receive bilateral aid from Sweden only 33 will remain. The guiding principle is that the Swedish government has decided to give more priority to Africa than to Asia.”
However, she also thinks that the political situation in Laos might have influenced Sweden’s decision. “The process of political reforms is Laos have been rather slow in comparison with other reforms in the country. This has not been the only reason but could be one of the factors affecting the final decision,” she says.
AnnLis Åberg assures that the closing down of the embassy does not mean, that Sweden will end diplomatic relation with Laos. “We will definitely continue the diplomatic relation. There is no doubt about that. Actually the Swedish State Secretary Joakim Stymne visited Laos last week, where he met with Laos ministers and local partner in order to discuss the future relationship between the two countries,” she says.
Sweden was one of the first countries to recognise Laos and to start development assistance already in 1974. “We have a lot to build on. Our cooperation is now entering a new face. We hope to continue to enhance the private sector and our commercial relation,” she says.
Furthermore AnnLis Åberg explains that Sweden will continue to support Laos though multilateral organisations and through the European Commission as well as through the Swedish NGO’s in Laos. “We also have close cooperation with the Laotian government when it comes to human rights.”
For the past few years Sweden has been the second largest bilateral donor to Laos, after Japan. “It will definitely be noticed, that we disappear, ”says AnnLis Åberg. Sweden will in the coming period develop a strategy of how to face out its projects smoothly over the coming years. “We are going to have a lot of discussions with international donors and multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, and Asian Development Bank,” she says.
A more uncertain option is that Sida’s projects can continue by the help of other donor countries or local organisations. “I don’t think that we can expect that many of the projects entirely will be taken over by other donors. Our Laotian counterparts have to find other ways to continue the activities,” she says.
AnnLis Åberg is optimistic about the general development of Laos. She has been following the development in Laos closely since 1990 and for the past four years as Chargé Chargé d’Affaires in Vientiane.
“I think this country is on the right track. I can see a lot of progress and changes when it comes to infrastructure and economic development ,” she says. “The accession to ASEAN (association of Southeastasian Nations) in 1997 ment a lot to Laos and since 2000 development has happened quite fast. Laos is now part of the international community in another way than it was before. But some crucial areas are of course still lacking behind. Laos’ aim is to leave the list of the least developed countries in 2020, and I think it is quite realistic,” she says.
In addition to the embassy in Laos, Sweden is also ending Development Corporation with Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries in Asia. “The total budget for development aid will not decrease, so the idea is that the remaining countries will have more money,” says AnnLis Åberg. Sweden is planning to open new embassies in Belarus, Sudan and Afghanistan.