After four years of significant changes in development policy, interesting years as Finland’s first Ambassador to Myanmar are awaiting Riikka Laatu. She is excited about her transfer to Yangon.
At the start of September Riikka Laatu, Deputy Director General at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, will transfer to her new position as Finland’s Ambassador to Myanmar after spending four years in a ringside seat watching significant changes taking place in development policy. The changes have been numerous: globally the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and at home five different Ministers for International Development, a new Government Report on Development Policy, and budget cuts affecting appropriations and human resources.
At the international level the year 2015 was a super year for development policy, according to Laatu. It was the year the international community adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Addis Abeba Action Agenda on development financing, and the Paris Agreement to combat climate change.
Laatu attended the UN Sustainable Development Summit in 2015 where the Agenda 2030 was adopted. “UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it the biggest event in the UN history since the organization was established,” Laatu recalls.
However, there have been also steps backwards in the global development policy.
“Working together and reaching common rules were the hallmarks of development policy in the past decade, but now the tune has changed. Development aid donors often pursue their own projects, instead of supporting developing countries’ own plans,” Laatu says.
She finds that several donor countries find it difficult to convince their own people and decision-makers that supporting developing countries’ own plans is the most efficient means of achieving results.
Another negative trend is that development cooperation is linked with the streams of refugees flowing into Europe without tackling the reasons behind refugee crises.
A new development in Finland was the emphasis on the private sector in the most recent Government Report on Development Policy. It goes hand in hand with the Addis Abeba Action Agenda on development financing, according to Laatu.
“Combining private and public financing can generate major development results when private funds together with public funds are allocated to projects that matter to the poor but that would be do risky for private financing alone,” Laatu says.
“The Government’s financial-investment-type approach was something completely new to us, and we didn’t have any mechanisms in place for it. This meant that we had to work hard to develop new types of practices.”
The abrupt and extensive cuts in appropriations have dented development cooperation. At first for a while, our existing commitments forced the Ministry to manage the best it could, instead of being able to reallocate the diminished funds in accordance with the new development policy targets.
Improving practices is a topic that inspires Laatu, who has been working with development policy and development aid for three decades.
Practices in development aid have undergone major changes over the years. New tools have been developed to meet development aid needs, but they have also made the whole package difficult to control. Now the Ministry has launched a complete reform of practices.
Individual practices are now considered more as part of the whole. The objective is to make the work easier and the package easier to understand.
“We are in the process of performing an autopsy on our practices to find out how we work and how we could work better,” Laatu sums up the reform.
The reform of practices concerns not only the Foreign Service staff but also a great number of development aid actors. For example, the Ministry needs to develop its electronic application system for discretionary government transfers so that it better serves cooperation practices.
While Laatu’s current job holds her interest, she is excited about going to Myanmar, after all it was her first choice. Myanmar became an important development aid partner for Finland a few years ago, and the country is undergoing rapid change.
“Myanmar is an interesting country for development policy, and there are even many Finnish companies interested in the country. The peace process is politically fragile. Finland has advocated the process already for years, and we are among its core supporters,” Laatu says.
Myanmar’s pull is so strong that rents have gone sky-high. Finland’s small embassy has two rooms in the office it shares with three other Nordic countries.
“We could expand our office space, but the rent would be so astronomical that even Norway wouldn’t be able afford it,” the future Ambassador explains.
Besides the shared office space, the Nordic countries also have common administrative services covering, for example, payment traffic.