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Democracy, human rights and freedom of expression

Poverty is not simply a matter of not having enough food, water or a roof over one’s head, it is also a lack of influence over political decisions and power over one’s own life. Human rights and democracy are therefore the focus area in which Sida invests most heavily.

Progress has been made

Respect for human rights

Much has happened since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For example, globally, poverty and hunger have been reduced, more children attend school and maternal and child mortality have decreased. Many countries have also passed laws to strengthen respect for human rights. 

Stronger civil society

Civil society has become stronger in many parts of the world and people’s protests against restrictions on their rights have had results. In Romania, for example, the fight against corruption has been stepped up, while in El Salvador protests have led to the closure of gold mines that damage nature and communities. 


Many countries have taken important strides towards democracy. In 2018, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a treaty formally ending many years of conflict between the countries. Sudan has long been plagued by armed conflict, yet in 2019 an agreement was reached paving the way for a peaceful transition from military to civilian rule.

Challenges remain

Limited influence

The scope for democracy and respect for the principle of the rule of law have declined in many countries, with civil society finding it more difficult to exercise influence – especially organisations and individuals working for gender equality, LGBTQI rights, land rights and the environment.

Democratic decline

For the fourteenth consecutive year, more countries are backsliding on human rights than are making progress, according to Freedom House.


Many countries have laws that discriminate against various social groups; globally some 2.5 billion girls and women are adversely affected by discriminatory legislation and have less access to legal protection than men and boys, according to UN Women. Girls and women may also find it harder to obtain a passport, inherit or decide whether and who they are to marry.

Sida's work with democracy, human rights and freedom of expression

Human rights apply to everyone around the world, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly over 70 years ago.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the UN web page

Democratic governance and citizen participation

Every year since 2006, more countries have become less democratic than have become more democratic, according to Freedom House. Citizens often find themselves with little opportunity to influence political decisions. Women, young people and minorities are underrepresented in politics.

About democratic decline on the Freedom House webpage

Strengthening vital democratic functions

Many parliaments around the world lack sufficient capacity. The knowledge of members of parliament is also lacking, while citizens lack insight into the political decisions they make. This is particularly true of young democracies and countries suffering the effects of armed conflict. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) supports parliaments to ensure that they are able to fulfil their vital democratic functions. Among other initiatives, the IPU trains members of parliament, advises parliamentary committees and contributes to the digitisation and development of archives and libraries.

IPU web page

Women's political influence and leadership

Only one quarter of the world’s parliamentarians are women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.  Among other initiatives, Sida supports UN Women, Kvinna till Kvinna and other women’s rights organisations working to strengthen female political influence and leadership; for example, by training female politicians and exerting influence over governments to work towards gender equality.

UN Women web page

Strengthened political participation

Strengtehened political participation

Political parties can play a crucial role in development. They can turn ideas into political priorities, come up with criticism and present alternatives. As democracy declines in the world, however, the space for politicians in opposition to make themselves heard is shrinking. They are often affected by discrimination, harassment and violence. Lack of democracy also makes it difficult to hold those responsible to account. In collaboration with party-affiliated organizations, Sida, among other things, works to strengthen political influence of young people and women and to promote exchange of experiences between political parties.

Strengthening young people's voices in 16 African countries

Young people and women are severely under-represented among politicians in many of Sida’s partner countries. One of several programs that Sida supports is the Program for Young Politicians in Africa (PYPA), a non-partisan, regional leadership program. The program develops young politicians into change actors who can lead, plan, develop policies and identify concerns, even in their home municipalities. Young people who have participated over the years have been voted in as members of their parties’ boards, given other important party assignments or even been elected to parliament or mayors. The majority of participants have become more politically involved and have gained more influence in both their youth councils and mother parties, especially as regards gender equality, human rights and increased democracy.

Four Swedish party-affiliated organizations collaborate with local organizations in 16 countries within PYPA. The Christian Democratic International Center coordinates the program. The others included are the Center Party’s International Foundation (CIS), the Green Forum and Olof Palme International Center (OPC).

KIC Sweden

Improved political representation of young people and women in Latin America

Women and young people in Latin America are underrepresented in politics. Sida supports the Political Party Affiliated Organization  Latin America Program (PAOLA) in eleven Latin American countries. Since 2019, the program includes several thousand participants per year and has led to young men and women becoming more influential in political life. In Brazil, for example, one participant succeeded in being the first black young woman to be elected to the municipal council. Another participant became the chairman of a national youth council. Olof Palme International Center (OPC) implements the program in collaboration with the Swedish International Liberal Center (SILC) and the Christian Democratic International Center (KIC).

Olof Palme International Center

Strenghtening gender sensitive local crisis management in Palestine

Women in Palestine do not have the same opportunities as men to engage in local crisis management. Through the Center Party’s International Foundation (CIS), Sida supports the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development (PWWSD). This has led to women’s participation in local crisis management being strengthened. Their human rights and needs have been highlighted and provided with better opportunities to be fulfilled. Among other things, PWWSD works to change attitudes to women’s political participation. Another focus is to develop women’s and young people’s knowledge of leadership and their political rights. The organisation is also working to develop the capacities of so-called shadow councils, an arena where women indirectly can influence local politics. In 2020, just over 1,840 women participated in 86 shadow councils thanks to the project.


Functioning societal institutions and anticorruption

In many of the countries with which Sida cooperates, the state lacks the ability to apply laws and provide citizens with the services to which they are entitled. When public institutions are weak, the risk of corruption increases.

Monitor public services

Sub-Saharan Africa is the global region in which corruption is most pervasive, according to Transparency International. Integrity Action has developed the digital tool Development Check, which allows the citizens of countries such as Afghanistan, Kenya, Nepal and Tanzania to monitor public services, report any problems and then work with the responsible stakeholders to resolve the issue. This increases transparency and counters corruption.

About Development Check on the Integrity Action web page

Cooperation between Swedish government agencies and stakeholders

Countries that are unable to collect enough tax revenue find it difficult to maintain a functioning welfare sector. During 2019, 47 Swedish government agencies cooperated with stakeholders in Sida’s development cooperation countries on issues such as strengthening the tax system, national audits and climate and environmental authorities. Examples include support to national audits in Zambia and Mozambique and a tax reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A robust civil society

The work of civil society organisations is restricted in over half of the world’s countries, according to Civicus. Human rights defenders are surveilled and subjected to intimidation and violence.

Supporting civil society

Civil society stakeholders are threatened and pressured and civil society organisations limited by restrictive legislation. Sida works to strengthen these organisations and lobbies countries to allow a vibrant civil society. During 2019, Sida provided direct support to 400 civil society organisations, representing 39% of Sida’s total investments.

Protection for human rights defenders

Environmentalists and land protectors are currently facing increasing threats. Indigenous peoples and women are especially vulnerable. Sida supports the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which strengthens protection for human rights defenders in countries such as Guatemala and Cambodia.

About the work on the OHCHR web page

Freedom of speech and an independent media

Since the mid-2000s, freedom of expression has been weakened in every region of the world, according to Freedom House. Online freedom decreases as political leaders use the internet as a tool for surveillance and propaganda. Authoritarian regimes are strengthening their grip on the media and the number of countries in which journalists can safely ply their trade is decreasing, according to Reporters without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index.

Protecting journalists and independent media

Afghanistan and Syria are two of the most dangerous places on earth for journalists. In Afghanistan, Sida supports International Media Support (IMS), a non-profit organisation that among other things works to prevent violence against and offer emergency assistance to journalists. In Syria, IMS and Free Press Unlimited are working to improve security for journalists and to develop a more independent media.

Against discrimination and for the rights of the child

Certain groups in society are particularly vulnerable to violations of human rights. These include children and minorities. Globally, over half of those living in extreme poverty are children, according to Unicef. Many minority groups, such as ethnic or religious minorities and the LGBTQI community, are subjected to discrimination, persecution and violence.

Reducing child marriages

Every year 12 million girls are married off before the age of 18, according to UN Women. Plan International is working in Bangladesh to reduce the number of child marriages, including by organising youth groups and engaging fathers in efforts to achieve gender equality.

About the work in Bangladesh on the Plan International web page

Increasing respect for LGBTQ rights

Same-sex sexual activity is a crime in some 70 countries. LGBTQI individuals all over the world are subjected to physical and psychological violence, discrimination and gross indignities. In eastern Europe, the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Rights (RFSL) is collaborating with local civil society organisations to increase respect for the rights of LGBTQI people, improve antidiscrimination legislation and support the victims of violence.

RFSL web page

Scope and governance of Sida’s work with democracy, human rights and freedom of expression

During 2019, Sida paid out SEK 7 billion to support initiatives in the field of democracy, human rights and the principle of the rule of law. This equates to just over 25% of Sida’s total investment.

Updated: 21 September 2021