For the third time in a row seasoned diplomat Ms. Ann Måwe has been awarded the job she applied for within the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This time the appointment is her Ambassador debut – at the Embassy of Sweden, Hanoi.
It has been both smooth sailing and disruptive at this posting since Ambassador Måwe began her work in September 2019. Two high level business delegations – one in each direction from Sweden and Vietnam – had just taken place so it was, as she describes it, an easy start.
“I had a big advantage with the 50 years anniversary of bilateral relations as point of departure. And before the summer two big delegations had taken place; with the Crown Princess Couple and Trade minister Ann Linde who came here with the largest trade delegation ever; followed by the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s trip to Stockholm with a large delegation,” explains Ann Måwe.
“It’s easy to frame things around such an anniversary and the embassy and my predecessor had done an excellent job, which has made it easier for me to take over this role. There was a lot to continue with, new MoUs to follow up on and many events that had already been planned for the autumn. It was a just a matter of entering the role while carrying through with things.”
What was new for Ann Måwe was the representative role; to be seen and heard a lot in public, representing Sweden and talking about the bilateral relation.
The spring of 2020, however, has been anything else than normal, with all planned activities cancelled due to Covid-19 and instead a lot of work with assisting stranded Swedes in Vietnam to get them back home safely.
Ambassador Måwe had applied to Vietnam as she wanted to have a completely new challenge, having worked intensively with the Middle East, including for the five last years at the Middle East and North Africa department in Stockholm during the period when Sweden was a member of the UN Security Council.
“I felt I needed a break from that and I’ve been curious about Asia and feel that it’s the region in the world where things are developing rapidly. Vietnam felt exciting based on that Sweden has a very long and deep relation with the country and also that we’ve gone from primarily development aid to supporting trade here. That is a positive and specific agenda to work with in Vietnam,” the ambassador elaborates.
Her diplomatic career started very early, so early in fact that she has never worked in the private sector.
“I’ve been working at the Foreign Ministry for 20 years now and especially on topics concerning the Middle East and also the United Nations. The Middle East is also my educational background; I studied oriental studies at Uppsala University, followed by a Masters at SOAS, the School of Oriental & African Studies (University of London), so it has been a lot of work connected to the Middle East for me throughout the years, including my latest position as Deputy Head of the Department for the Middle East and North Africa.”
Her choice of education she explains as follows: “I was interested in international politics and realised that the Middle East region, neighbouring Europe, will always in one way or another affect developments in Sweden and the EU. I thought that to make a difference in international relations one should learn languages and understand the history and culture of the region you are dealing with.“
In 1999 she was admitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) internal education, the Diplomat programme, back then called ‘Handläggarutbildningen’.
“At that point, when I had finished my MSc in 1998, I knew I wanted to work with the Middle East and I applied for MENA-related jobs [Middle East and North Africa] at MFA, Human Rights Watch, Sida and some private companies. I got admitted to MFA and stayed there.“
Outside of MFA headquarters she has been on two postings abroad that both connect to her educational background; the Consulate General of Sweden in Jerusalem, followed by the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations in New York.
“In Jerusalem I was political officer, so my task was political reporting, in particular about the Middle East and the peace process with the concrete negotiations that were taking place back then. Palestinian domestic politics was also in focus etc. In New York I spent five years, of which the first few were dedicated to development topics within the UN and Sweden’s support to some of the UN’s development organisations; specifically Unicef, UNFPA, and UN Women. After that I moved over to the security section, being responsible for the Middle East and also Afghanistan and Pakistan – which also coincided with Swedish Presidency of the EU in 2009. I led the EU negotiations regarding the Middle East in the UN General Assembly.”
Asked about her lasting impression of working with the UN she says: “UN is the organisation we have to solve conflicts and when working with security issues one can notice that they often disagree among the five permanent members in the Security Council. At the same time I think Sweden has a very long tradition and experience of working in the UN and the latest period when Sweden had a seat in the Security Council, during 2017 – 2018, I felt that we could contribute well there thanks to the fact we have a broad contact network and wide understanding of how the UN works. And, for instance, Sweden hosted consultations about the conflict in Yemen in Stockholm in December 2018, which gave progress somewhat. Sweden is a small country in need of a rule-based world order, so it feels worthwhile to work in the UN. Meanwhile, it is of course dominated by bureaucracy and many reforms are needed, so that things could work much better.”
“With this background in multilateral and UN affairs it is particularly interesting to arrive in Vietnam when the country is embarking on a two-year term in the UNSC 2020-2021 and also presiding over the ASEAN in 2020,” she adds.
Now, with her focus turned to Asia she gets the chance to learn more about a region she has had little to do with previously.
“I’ve been here only on missions to Cambodia and Myanmar when I was working on multilateral healthcare topics. Other than that I have only visited as tourist.”
With her family she has been on a wedding trip to Bali and on vacation to Sri Lanka two times. She is married to outgoing left wing party leader Jonas Sjöstedt and together they have 13-year-old twins; a boy and a girl, who are attending school in Hanoi. Intending to move to Vietnam and join the family her husband’s arrival has been delayed as the party congress was postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
The family has also had the time to explore the country a bit.
“We travelled during the autumn, in Laos and Cambodia, including on the waterway from Phnom Phen into the Mekong delta, and then took the night train from Saigon to Hanoi, which takes 36 hours and during which one get to see a lot of the country passing by. We’ve also been on shorter excursions to the coast etc. There are still lots to see though we managed to travel quite a lot during the first six months.”
The epidemic has of course stopped all travel though, and that of course includes official trips in the region that had been planned and that she had been looking forward to very much.
In order to engage with the vibrant Swedish business community in Vietnam the ambassador also needs to travel frequently to Ho Chi Minh City, where most of the Swedes are based. These work either for Swedish companies or are own entrepreneurs.
“We are bit off up in Hanoi, so I try to travel there every sixth week. We hold breakfast meetings with Swedish companies in Ho Chi Minh City and meet with those who can make it at those times.”
There are also some Swedes in Hanoi, she informs, who have remained after the development programmes stopped, continuing in professional capacity where partnerships have continued, within for example healthcare (one of the sectors where Sweden used to have significant development cooperation).
The embassy shares office with Business Sweden, which is now also free-standing (previously under Bangkok). Björn Savlid is now Trade Commissioner appointed by the Swedish Government.
“It is very practical to share office as our main mission also concerns the trade relationship. They do an excellent work here, and we do almost everything together though we work separately. And since Vietnam is a one-party state, and with everything more or less controlled by the state, the embassy is needed as a door opener to solve questions relating to trade barriers and various red tape complications. We can therefore help each other a lot by working together,” thinks the ambassador.
She has also noticed, since arriving, that there is a positive momentum, with Swedish companies expanding and wanting to expand further; doing big investment in sectors like infrastructure, urban transport, and sustainable manufacturing.
The ambassador has also pointed to a huge potential for business opportunities and trade between Sweden and Vietnam, and which also includes exchanging business solutions and technology transfer.
“Ericsson is busy rolling out 5G, Tetra Pak opened a new production plant last year and there’s a lot of expansion going on over all. We can also see lots of SMEs wanting to come here but who find that this is a difficult market with lots of red tape and corruption. And there is hope that once the EU-Vietnam FTA is implemented later this year it will get easier for the smaller companies with less capacity than our multinationals.”
The embassy works very closely with the Swedish companies, with a focus in recent years on three themes that were previously jointly identified to focus on: innovation, safety and sustainability. They see that Swedish companies have comparative advantages within these themes and that are quite relevant in the Vietnamese contexts.
“The three priorities have been there for several years and it has worked very well, they function as a sounding board; there is an interest from the Vietnamese side for solutions within them.”
Directly upon Ann Måwe’s arrival to Vietnam it was time for the kick-off of the annual ‘Innovate like a Swede’ competition, where teams of two persons (university students) can pitch an idea or innovation and that has to be connected to one of the SDGs.
“I immediately had to get an understanding of why Vietnam is interested in innovation and why Sweden is focusing on that here, and what Sweden has to offer. Vietnam has moved very fast during the last ten years, in terms of reforms, having joined WTO and established 17 FTAs with various blocks and countries. They have also understood in this country that they want to raise their position in the global value chain and add more value for products. They then also realise that innovation is something that is needed, and are thus very active within this, and have climbed a few positions in the global innovation index too.”
Ann Måwe also informs that when the Vietnamese Prime Minisiter visited Sweden he in particular brought up innovation and sustainability with Sweden’s PM Stefan Löfven – wanting to see collaboration.
“We have also had both the Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi Governors visiting Sweden last year, studying innovation and the start-up scenes etc. So it feels like a very given priority.”
“Within sustainability, also there Vietnam has very high ambitions but also enormous challenges, as their economic growth has moved so fast, so for example air quality in Hanoi is during periods very bad. There, they have evident challenges, with plastic waste being another. And waste management over all is a big challenge,” she continues.
The amount of waste in the country is expected to double in less than 15 years. Meanwhile, less than 10% of waste in Vietnam is recycled and a significant amount of waste ends up directly in landfills or in the ocean. Sweden, meanwhile, is one of the world’s leading countries in waste management and recycling.
“We have Swedish companies that want to get involved within these topics. We arrange seminars and held one on circular economy, co-organised with Business Sweden, in November 2019. We spoke about the Swedish experience within waste management and recycling, and Tetra Pak, a big supplier food packages in Vietnam, would like to see more recycling. They have a pilot project in Hanoi where they help to recycle milk cartons in 800 schools.”
“Vietnam did fulfil all Millennium Goals before deadline and now they are very determined to continue working on the sustainability development goals. But it’s a balance act when they at the same time want strong financial growth while at the same time trying to make it as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible.”
Ann Måwe has also had the time to notice how strong the Vietnamese – Swedish relation and friendship remains still today. In every meeting she has been to, Bai Bang, the Swedish paper mill development aid project has been mentioned.
“It is one positive part that there are plenty of people-to-people relationships no matter in what sector, be it a radio station or at a hospital! As the first western country to do so, Sweden recognised Vietnam as an independent state already in 1969 while the war still raging, and subsequently had a major development cooperation programme for Vietnam, And within companies they have either been to Sweden or have worked with Swedes who were here. Those connections make it very easy to work here because it’s much appreciated that we were here and helped in developing the country after the war.”
Now, the ambassador says it is the Swedish embassy’s task to convey a more modernised image of Sweden to Vietnam’s overall very young population.
“Sweden is very different now. We must nurture that history that is appreciated here but also contribute to the understanding that Sweden today offers something completely different.”