After serving Norway in the country for the past four years, Ambassador Kikkan Haugen is leaving the country. In this interview, he reflects on his mission to Malawi and shares some of the highlights during his stay in the country.
What are you most proud of being the Norwegian ambassador in Malawi and what are some of your biggest highlights here?
I have had four wonderful, exciting and meaningful years in Malawi, both at personal and professional level. I am proud of what I and my team at the Embassy have achieved during these four years. Norway remains the third biggest bilateral partner to Malawi, and I am proud of how we have handled this and also how we have been able to broaden our partnerships with Malawi. Particularly within the business and investment sector where there was hardly any activity before. Furthermore, we have been able to develop the Malawi-Norwegian cooperation from mostly being about development cooperation to more political dialogue and issues of common concern for our two countries.
I am also proud of the good results we have achieved on behalf of the people of Malawi, notably within the health and education sectors. Statistics show that our support in collaboration with our partners have created quite remarkable results such as getting more children to attend school. We have also seen positive results within the health sector, despite its big challenges. The infant and maternal mortality rates are decreasing, so is the fertility rate. More women are safely giving birth in health institutions rather than at home or in the village. Stunting remains high, however, it is decreasing. All of this will give positive long-term effect on the development in Malawi, which I hope will be sustained.
I am also proud that we have been able to be a consistent and predictable partner to Malawi, and always try to find the best solutions in challenging circumstances. We base our partnership on values and good principles that as far as possible align with Malawian principles, strategies, priorities and systems. We know that is the best way we can support something which will generate sustainable long-term results. Furthermore, we have been consistent and predictable on human rights. We have worked towards ensuring that every individual in a society has his or her rights respected, regardless of gender, sexuality, occupation and status. Transparency, the fight against corruption, the rights of prisoners and the empowerment of women have been some of the issues we have consistently promoted in my years as head of the Embassy.
What did you find the most challenging?
There were several challenges; one of them is the population increase. We are able to achieve a lot, however, the demands are simultaneously increasing as the population increases. This makes it harder to keep up with the growing demands, and it is a challenge we observe especially within the education sector. Another challenge is the limitations and the weaknesses of the systems in [the country]. I have experienced that there is quite often a very wide gap between what is promised and what is actually being implemented on the ground. This is partly due to the lack of capacity, and sometimes the lack of political will, to implement reforms. I hope and believe that we have been instrumental in establishing and supporting structures that improve the systems.
For example, we have an exciting approach to the health sector where we in close collaboration with other partners pool resources together to support government’s strategies and priorities in a situation where budget support has not been possible. We have also supported innovative projects that use new technology to boost the learning ability of children in school. This is clearly working and pointing to new opportunities for the future.
I have personally been involved in activities aimed at supporting governance issues in Malawi, including new and innovative programmes aimed at increasing the capacity and functioning Parliament—clearly one of the most important democratic institutions of the country. I have also been involved in programmes aimed at improving the conditions of prisoners, and taken a personal interest in our support to the cultural sector in Malawi.
How do you think circumstances at the Embassy have changed since you first started?
I don’t think the Embassy itself has changed much in the sense that there has always been a very good team here that I took over from my predecessor, which I will leave to my successor. We are a well-functioning embassy that is able to professionally deliver and look after Norwegian interests in Malawi. Most of the time, we have a good time doing so!
What will you miss the most about being the Norwegian ambassador in Malawi, and just Malawi in general?
I will leave with two basic feelings, and I will only miss one of them. The feeling I will not miss is the feeling of impatience. Although Malawi is a wonderful country in many aspects, it still remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and many of us would say it does not quite live up to its potential. I feel an urgency that more affirmative action, for instance on corruption or reforming the agricultural markets, could and should be done on behalf of the poor people in Malawi. They struggle and their lives are becoming increasingly tougher. There should also be more enforcement on the ground to narrow the gap between what is being said and adopted, against what is actually being done. I have experienced how this gap frustrates many of us, both in the international and national community.
That said, the feeling I will certainly miss is the feeling of love and deep respect for the people of Malawi and their everyday struggles. I will miss the friendliness, smiles and the beautiful landscape. I will also miss the sense of wellbeing I got from being here as I find Malawi a truly nice place to be!
What has been your greatest learning experience from being here?
My greatest learning experience from my four years in Malawi is that everything needs to be seen in context, and that everything is connected. For instance, when we deal with our development aid to Malawi, we need to understand what we do in the greater context and understand the politics that either drive or oppose change. Our work becomes inefficient and less likely to achieve sustained long-term results when we lack the understanding and ability to see these connections.
It is important to put things in perspective, especially within a political and cultural aspect. This is something I have experienced and learned a lot from, and which I will certainly bring with me. My other learning experience is that despite the disappointments and challenges we face, it is still vital to maintain a sense of optimism and a constructive attitude. I believe that becoming cynical blinds us to seeing opportunities and stops us being constructive. I have seen that happen too many times during my four years here. I will, therefore, take with me from Malawi the importance of maintaining a positive and constructive attitude wherever I go.