FocusMannheimer Swartling journeys to Mozambique with SOS Children’s Villages

“If we are to be credible when providing clients advice on issues relating to sustainability, we should know what we are talking about. It is also important for us to be engaged. This trip increased both our knowledge of a region where a number of our clients are active and our desire to inspire more people to get involved with children who are vulnerable,” say Anna Bryngelsson and Mikaela Mars, lawyers at Mannheimer Swartling. They are the firm’s first ambassadors to SOS Children’s Villages and have recently returned from visiting the organisation’s operations in Mozambique.

Boarding an airplane in Sweden on a grey and chilly March morning and arriving just over a day later in Mozambique’s humid, hot, crowded, colourful and seemingly chaotic capital Maputo would be a bewildering experience for even the most seasoned traveller. For Mikaela and Anna, neither of whom had ever been to sub-Saharan Africa before, this marked the start of a four-day trip that left deep impressions.

As part of our sustainability efforts, we have both the opportunity and responsibility to pursue issues that are important to us, for our clients and the world at large. 

“It will take some time to digest everything we’ve experienced. It felt like working on a big puzzle with the pieces falling into place one by one the more we learned about the country’s history, politics, culture, economy and current social challenges,” Anna says. “This was at the same time we were also experiencing and seeing the immediate effects of all of this in the city and rural areas we visited.”

“We gained a clear insight into the risks associated with the widespread corruption in the country,” adds Mikaela. “But amidst all these depressing and difficult elements, we were met by a warmth, generosity and commitment that was deeply moving. We also saw widespread evidence that each of us with a relatively small contribution can help to improve prospects for vulnerable people.”

Mannheimer Swartling’s first ambassadors to SOS Children’s Villages

The background for the trip was that in 2014 Mikaela and Anna were appointed Mannheimer Swartling’s first ambassadors to SOS Children’s Villages, an organisation to which the firm has a long-standing commitment. Michael Karlsson, partner at Mannheimer Swartling, is Chairman of SOS Children’s Villages in Sweden and the firm launched a contribution-matching programme for the benefit of the organisation in 2011. The firm committed to matching all employee contributions.

“As part of our sustainability efforts, we have both the opportunity and responsibility to pursue issues that are important to us, for our clients and the world at large. These matters include ethics, law and human rights. Our engagement with these issues is an important part of our efforts to continually evolve and improve,” Michael explains.

“As an incentive to encourage even more employees to donate – and to spread knowledge within the firm about our commitment to SOS Children’s Villages – we have selected ambassadors for the firm. In this role they travel with the organisation to see a village for themselves and to experience operations on the ground. When they return, they share their experiences to encourage even more colleagues to become involved, so that we can help even more children.”

The first stop on the trip was Maputo, where a Children’s Village was built in the early 1990s. SOS Children’s Villages established operations in Mozambique in the mid80s to assist children orphaned as a result of the civil war. Today, the organisation operates six children’s villages, three youth homes, five kindergartens, four elementary schools, a training centre for SOS Children’s Village mothers and other staff, as well as seven social centres in the country.

Anna describes their journey through the country: “From Maputo we travelled north to the small city of Chimoio, where SOS Children’s Villages opened a children’s village in 2011, financed entirely by Swedish author Henning Mankell. It was a fantastic facility with a pre-school, but the organisation has not yet had the opportunity to build its own school. This means that the village children attend the local school, which has 6,000 students. They go in three shifts during the day – 2,000 at a time. We met a brave teacher there who did everything to try and supervise a class composed of around 80 students and another bunch looking in through the windows. One has to admire the patience and strength that teachers need to work under such conditions.” 

Challenges – yet SOS Children’s Villages provides hope

Anna and Mikaela also visited the SOS Children’s Villages family-strengthening programs in the area.

Attending school in Mozambique requires school uniforms – and not everyone can afford them,” Mikaela says. “So SOS Children’s Villages has initiated a project to teach people how to sew their own uniform. This is just one example of how the organisation works at the grassroots level to identify a problem and then find a cost-effective solution that benefits as many people as possible.” 

Despite strong economic growth in recent decades, Mozambique counts among the world’s poorest countries. The country is still scarred by the brutal civil war that raged from 1977 to 1992. The years of war devastated the infrastructure and civil society unravelled. The more recent positive developments and economic growth mask the fact that Mozambique is still home to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, who have a life expectancy of only 50 years. Growth has not led to any significant increase in employment in the country and widespread poverty has thus persisted.

The infant mortality rate in the country is high and approximately one in seven children dies before the age of five. Malaria, childbirth-related diseases, acute respiratory infection and AIDS are the leading causes of death for children, but a strong contributing factor is malnutrition. Child marriage, child labour and having responsibility for the household are all too common. Child prostitution is also on the rise, particularly in major cities and around transport routes.

“While new legislation aimed at strengthening women’s and children’s rights is expected to come, it has already been criticised for being too ineffective,” says Anna.

Mozambique is also one of the countries in the world most vulnerable to natural disasters. In the beginning of 2015, portions of Mozambique and the neighbouring country of Malawi in southeast Africa suffered from torrential rains. Several Children’s Villages in Mozambique reported damages. In addition, crops and roads were destroyed and large parts of the country still remain without power. There is also concern that cholera will spread. The South African government has sent troops to assist Mozambique and Malawi and the United Nations has provided emergency relief in some areas.

“Much of what we saw was shocking and sad, but there also was much that gave hope,” Mikaela shares. “To witness the dedication and passion that the staff at SOS Children’s Villages exhibit and the effort made by the organisation was truly inspiring. We saw so many examples of how important our contributions are and how much benefit they bring.” 

Michael concurs: “My visit to Children’s Villages around the world have been hugely inspiring. They have given me clear evidence that the concept works – and the change we can make to help vulnerable children.” 

“It is also important that we work on all possible levels – from a micro to a macro perspective. Within the framework of the firm’s sustainability efforts, we are engaged in a variety of projects. These range from organising international human rights courses in cooperation with the Raoul Wallenberg Institute and participating in UN-led projects on human rights a few years ago to working locally for example with Lawyers on the Street (Gatujuristerna) and the Centre for Justice (Centrum för rättvisa).” 

Mikaela and Anna also both emphasise that the trip has also helped them grow professionally as legal advisors.

“Although only a few of our clients have operations in Mozambique, there are many who are active in other countries that face similar challenges. The trip has made me much more aware of how important it is to recognise and respond to risks,” says Anna.

“It increases our credibility when we assist clients in their sustainability efforts if we ourselves are aware and have experience of the conditions they may face,” adds Mikaela.

Anna and Mikaela will be holding presentations at Mannheimer Swartling’s offices to share their experiences with their colleagues to encourage them to become involved as well.

“Now that Mikaela and Anna have seen the effects of corruption and natural disasters first hand, they better understand how important it is to integrate sustainability into our work and why the firm assists organisations such as SOS Children’s Villages,” explains Michael.

About the firm’s commitment to SOS Children’s Villages

Mannheimer Swartling has a longstanding partnership with SOS Children’s Villages Sweden and provides financial support for emergency relief for SOS Children’s Villages. Since 2010, the firm has also directed its annual Christmas gift to the SOS Children’s Village village in Tamale, Ghana. Michael Karlsson is a partner at Mannheimer Swartling and has been Chairman of SOS Children’s Villages Sweden since 2008 (board member since 2003). He is also a board member of the international umbrella organisation SOS-Kinderdorf International with headquarters in Innsbruck, Austria.

Anna Bryngelsson and Mikaela Mars are lawyers at Mannheimer Swartling’s offices in Malmö and Stockholm, respectively, and are the firm’s first ambassadors to SOS Children’s Villages. They serve in 2014/2015 and were selected through an application process, where they were asked to explain their interest in the position and describe how they would like to help encourage employee engagement in SOS Children’s Villages. The trip to Mozambique took place 22-28 March 2015 and was led by Marlene Larsson of SOS Children’s Villages Sweden. Emma Ihre, the firm’s Head of Sustainability, and Gabriella Hedström, Communications Manager, also participated.