It is rare to be invited to the residence of a Swedish diplomat and be enriched with the culture and history of the world. But that is the life of Annika Nordin Jayawardena, a well-travelled and experienced diplomat and currently serving as deputy head of mission and Head of Development Cooperation at the Embassy of Sweden in Addis Ababa.
In Sri Lanka is where she met her husband, Gihan, in Kenya, where she was the head of Sweden’s Development Cooperation and spent almost a decade helping construct a moderate and inclusive constitution for the country, supported a new way of doing demand driven extensions service as well as justice sector reform and a social safety net program, and in Ethiopia, her latest assignment, she is helping empower a new generation of women leaders to be the agents of change.
While her career started as a junior program officer at UNESCO at the age of 29, as a fresh graduate of the University of Gothenburg, she has since worked and immersed herself in a number of cultures and nations and managed to make an impression in many corners of the world. Along the way, she even managed to attend graduate school in Social Sciences, International and Comparative Education at the University of Stockholm.
The ever idealist, in the entire unique road she has traveled, the highlights are how much it has changed her for the better as much as all the impact she has made in her career. “I am who I am, because of my unique experience in life; people I have met in various countries have influenced me a lot,” she told The Reporter.
Invited at her immaculate and spacious residence in the Old Airport area, close what is known as the Russian camp where most Russian soldiers lived during the era of Mengsitu Hailemariam (Col.), over perfect Sri Lankan cuisine and Ethiopian beer, The Reporter was given a rare conversation and a glimpse on the life of, what her friends and colleagues refer to as “Annika”.
There is no one thing to except when invited to the house of a veteran diplomat, there are plenty. Perhaps, one is better to expect the unexpected. Her wall is covered with paintings and artifacts from countries she has traveled. “That is a picture given to me by my husband’s uncle who is a noted painter in Sri Lanka,” she told The Reporter. Her cushions are from Kenya, the cross on the wall from Ethiopia…and the list goes on.
While in Kenya, she waited until 2011 after Kenya had got a new constitution, before she accepted a promotion with the Swedish International Agency, SIDA as head of Evaluations and then the deputy head of the Africa Department. It seemed there was an urge, temptation to head to a foreign assignment. Ethiopia became her next destination. In Ethiopia, she became the head of Development Cooperation for Ethiopia with the rank of deputy head of mission. That lasted a few years.
In 1954, her country adopted Ethiopia as its first donor nation. She says she is proud of the schools Sweden built in rural areas on the 1960s and 70s. “Every week I meet people who have gone to those schools,” she says.
Not even a year into her assignment, she managed to make an early impression when she helped Enat Bank, Ethiopia’s premier female bank; receive a guarantee from Sweden that has helped catalyzing lending of USD 10 million in private capital This was to help it expand its loan portfolio for female entrepreneurs and to small and medium enterprises that would otherwise not access loans.
Standing next to the bank’s male president, Wondwossen Teshome, she announced how much the Government of Sweden wants to see female entrepreneurs be given the chance to excel in their aspirations. “I want to make sure that the next generation of leaders in Ethiopia, are given ample opportunities to be heard and be given chances to be agents of change,” she told The Reporter, as her husband helped prepare the delicacies that would be served to guests.
“Children rights, human rights, and women emancipation are important components of what I do. I also want to promote actions against climate change and promote democratization in Ethiopia, which will help stability,” she says.
Sweden is no stranger to Ethiopia. There are noted contributions made by the Scandinavian country all over the country. The Ethiopian Swedish Pediatric Clinic, for instance, was started by a Swedish doctor and a son of a municipal politician, Yngve Larsson. Lideta Maternal and Child Health Center was established with the support of her government.
Long-known for its missionary activities in Africa, there are generations of Ethiopians, educated with the generous support of the country.
For Annika, in a long, prosperous career in development and international diplomacy, she seemed delighted with what she has experienced and the opportunities that presented her to make a contribution. She is grateful and seems aware of the many challenges that are still out there, especially for women who are disadvantaged and those with disabilities.
While she started her career in earnest in Paris at the age of 29 at UNESCO, it was the decision of a high-ranking Swedish foreign diplomat, who pushed for her to travel abroad, to the third world, to learn how decisions made in New York, London and Paris would have real human impacts on the ground.
Then, among a dozen sent to Paris, to help them build the foundation as future Swedish diplomats in development, she was the first to be sent to a foreign assignment, not in the Western world, but to Sri Lanka. It was believed the experience would give them a chance in diplomacy-in-action rather than be stationed in a city of expensive fashion and cafés.
While Paris was not to be her home away from home, her first assignment had her hone her skills and prepares her for what was to come.
Sri Lanka was no walk in the park, for the young public servant. From the city of romance, to a society in transition, with civil conflicts and ethnic tensions, struggling to go forward to a peaceful transition, with citizens struggling to co-existence with each other, the nation gave her a practical glimpse of some of the challenges of the world. There were a lot of adjustments to be made and lessons to be learned.
Her new assignment was with UNICEF in the South Asian country as a junior program officer and it would be her first foray to practical international diplomacy and nation building. This was also to be where she found her international footing on quality education and education for peace, early childhood development, and providing a second chance for drop-outs.
In her quiet and beautiful residence, full of character and as her husband played the piano in the background, “the music of my youth” he explained later to The Reporter, ever proud of the culture of his rich culture, she listed the unfinished business of her work.
“I have always wanted to help create social safety nets, help strengthen civil society and help support the development of government institutions,” she says. “The environment is also an important area where my government has invested so much in.”
Fresh from a trip with the Canadian ambassador and the head of UNICEF Ethiopia to areas affected by the drought, she seemed touched, even bothered by the drought that is currently devastating parts of the country. “I am ever convinced on the need of development and aid for hard to reach people in the world.” The amazing thing is that most people know how they can develop step by step but they lack an enabling environment, access to services and financial support.
She sat around a spacious table of spicy Sri Lankan food, with her husband, who is learning Amharic. He explained in English and Amharic how much he loves Ethiopia and how he is often mistaken for an Ethiopian. “I just wish Ethiopians spoke more English, so I could communicate with them more,” he says. “That is why I have registered for an intensive Amharic class so I can better communicate with Ethiopians fully and completely.”
“I love Ethiopia”.
As Annika nodded in agreement, perhaps a confirmation why, with a unique personality, experience and wisdom, she is seen as a friend of international development. It seemed, in an experienced and passionate life well lived and traveled, she has constructed important roles for herself and her country.
Hers is not just the life of an everyday development officer, but one that seems to care deeply about the protection and promotion of better ideals in all corners of the world.