Tough Talking for Tough Times, a Moment in Time with Ewa Bjorling, Sweden’s Minister for Trade

Ewa Bjorling in Erbil

Ewa Bjorling in Erbil

 

On a very wet  May afternoon, three team  Nina stalwarts met with Dr Ewa Bjorling, Sweden’s minister for trade at her Ministry in Stockholm. Minister Bjorling became the first female minister for trade in the year 2007 (only Sweden and France have a female in the position of minister for trade in EU). The 53 year old has a reputation for toughness, rigorous intellect and making things happen. We went to find out more, whilst grasping the opportunity to explain how Nina  fitted in to some of the things Minister Bjorling was keen to promote.

Dr Bjorling is on record as saying that free trade is at the heart of good business and that Iraq, despite its troubles has an important role to play in creating trade opportunities. She also believes that the male perspective is very important to consider when creating opportunities for women, stating that “..from housework to social life, the thought of ‘helping’ women needs to be changed to doing things ‘together’.”

Our 45 minutes together started with an exchange of gifts. Uns handed Minister Bjorling the inaugural issue of Nina and in turn, the Minister handed us a booklet she had launched that morning in Arabic, on Gender equality – The responsibility of the entire Government.

She explained:

“ I spoke at the Women for Sustainable growth conference earlier on today and was delighted to  present the senior female leaders from the MENA region with this new booklet in which we outline how we in Sweden achieved gender equality in government. In Sweden our ratio is now 11 women to 13 men. It is important to promote this knowledge share and indeed support other governments looking to implement opportunities for promote gender equality and how it is mainstreamed into all policy areas.”

Women’s participation in politics and women’s economic empowerment are well documented as being inextricably linked. Minister Bjorling is also well known for her interest in the Middle East and Iraq in particular, where did the initial interest in a global perspective come from?

“You will have done your research and know that I am a qualified dentist. Often in interviews people focus on that as an opener. In fact rather than a dentist I would call myself a scientist. I spent 18 years working with viruses- HIV in particular. This gave me a real global perspective as health and HIV are global issues and I travelled extensively. My international work did much to inspire me in terms of seeking a global stage to build opportunities for Sweden.”

 

I go on to ask whether the challenge of combining politics with her many other areas of interest has any impacts on her work as a minister for trade now.

“Well, I certainly learned how to multitask and push myself to my absolute limits. I was always involved in politics, from the age of 14 I was interested and wanted to participate. However, my journey really started when I became involved in local politics in 1998 and then on a national stage in 2002. When national and local politics crossed over and then combined with a being mother to two toddlers and my work as an educator (getting a research group of 5 PHD students to complete their work) the going really got tough.

I had to dig deep – but I got the results in the end! My children survived and thrived, I am now minister of trade for Sweden and 3 of my Phd students continued to bigger and better things in the fields of their choice….  This determination and ability to push myself as well as an admiration for others who do, certainly influences my work now.  I believe that anything really worthwhile is going to have very tough moments. I actually think a degree of toughness, often caused by difficult experiences is very useful in getting on in life and creating success.”

I pick up on this in relation to the Iraqi diaspora, citing figures that over 1.5% of the Swedish population is Iraqi diaspora. Is this toughness, based on the experiences 1st generation diaspora have been through, an important drivers to create business success in their new home? (For example, one of the contributors to Nina has recreated her wedding planning business in Sweden and has now opened an affiliate in Kurdistan.)

“I get thrilled when situations present themselves as difficult. Iraq is difficult. What Iraqi people have been through and are going through now is difficult (NB: this interview was conducted before the most recent crisis). However, despite differences in culture and particularly business culture, a combination of Iraqi toughness with Swedish opportunity really does pay off.”

 

The Minister’s frequent visits to Iraq are well documented as well as very well received, what is it about Iraq that attracts?

“Iraq is tough. However, it is also very friendly. When I was in Kurdistan on my first visit it actually felt a bit like Sweden. Even though I didn’t know it, there was a sense of a kind of homecoming. For example, because of the close links between our countries and because Sweden was such an important destination for the diaspora, many of the Ministers spoke Swedish. Even physically, driving through the snow-covered Zagros mountains, it reminded me a bit of Sweden. The real connection for me came though, when I saw the families out together on the Friday. Apparently families always get together on Fridays to have barbeques or picnics – real family time; this is typical in Sweden also. The men of course would love showing off their barbequing skills – Swedish men do exactly the same!”

I can empathise and explain that the warmth and strength of the people is what drew me to my work with Nina. Nina has been created in order to support business and trade opportunities globally linking the Iraqi diaspora in to international trade organisations through the connecting thread of supporting Women’s Economic Empowerment. The presence of Uns and Nigar today, members of the global Iraqi diaspora, bears testament to this.  Minister Bjorling understands this and goes on to speak about the work she has done to create official links between the two countries.

 

“ We reopened the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad in July 2009 (after closing in 2001). An honorary consulate was opened in Erbil in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan In December 2009. I believed these official links to be very important and worked extremely hard to bring this to fruition.

However, it’s not just about official buildings – unofficial conversations between two people who connect are an important part of seizing opportunity also. A great business opportunity was created with Basra, just through  a chance conversation I had when a local businessman commented that he used to play with Scandia and Volvo children’s toys. People warm to people, it is the role of governments and civil society working together to create the right environment to make that happen.”

We leave it there. There is no better way to finish this great interview. I believe we left Dr Bjorling with the understanding that Nina magazine is a framework that provides a way for people to link to people, creating business bonds that transcend usual barriers and challenges. Minister Bjorling had understood and asked to be kept abreast of our work so we left with a sense of achievement – a good day all round!

 

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