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Aid agency joins forces with big business

More than 11 million people across East Africa need food aid

More than 11 million people across East Africa need food aid


The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is enlisting the help of multinationals to tackle the age-old challenges of war, hunger and catastrophes.

Fifty years after the cornerstone of Swiss development work was founded, SDC director Martin Dahinden talks about how the agency is evolving to deal with a changing world.

The spotlight is currently on East Africa where tens of thousands of people each week are fleeing famine in Somalia to neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya. Conditions there are extremely difficult, Dahinden says. What effect do the terrible pictures of the famine in Somalia have on you?

Martin Dahinden.: The pictures and reports from the Horn of Africa upset me. When I hear about people who have died on the way to help centres, it makes me think how difficult it often is to raise small amounts of money to be able to deliver emergency help on the ground. How does SDC approach this problem?

M.D.: To see solutions is one thing. But to make sure that the solutions also are put into practice is something else. Switzerland carries on its humanitarian tradition and is committed. But our means alone are not enough to cover the phenomenal need in the region.

On top of that we have to think beyond short-term help: How we can stem the causes of this need, in particular the conflicts in the region? We have to see that the people get work and an income so that they can overcome the crisis. What is Switzerland doing in Somalia?

M.D.: For one thing Switzerland is active in its own projects. Apart from that Switzerland supports international organisations, first and foremost the [Swiss run] International Committee of the Red Cross. But also the World Food Programme and the UN High Commission for Refugees. These organisations try under extremely difficult conditions to protect people and carry out meaningful work. In the future SDC also wants to work more closely with multinational companies. Which ones?

M.D.: We live in a globalised world which is changing rapidly. New challenges are also coming to us in development cooperation that can only be solved with new partnerships.

That concerns countries such as India and China which are playing an increasingly important role in development cooperation.

It also concerns the private sector. Here we work together with internationally active Swiss firms such as Novartis, Nestlé or Zurich Financial Services. How do you benefit from this cooperation?

M.D.: The basis for this is common interest. Multinationals usually have skills, expertise, that are useful for us and that we wouldn’t otherwise have. For example in insurance.

Our contribution tends to be the exact knowledge of the situation on the ground and the people, who live in poverty. That is how the partnership works. Can you illustrate that with an example?

M.D.: Economic, income-building activities are often not carried out because they are too risky for the people concerned. Let’s take for example the risk of losing everything because of a crop failure. There has traditionally been no insurance option for developing countries in this area.

We have entered into a partnership with Zurich Financial Services relating to this. We try to develop solutions that address these specific risks and that at the same time are affordable for the people. It is not about selling existing insurance products.

We want to help make economic activities possible that create work and income for the people. Doesn’t it also have to be worthwhile for the insurance company?

M.D.: Yes of course. We have to look for solutions that are self-supporting and make it possible for us to withdraw. Incidentally the idea is not new. There were similar initiatives already in the Middle Ages when the first insurance companies were forming. Take for example the risk for a ship owner with one ship was too large so forms of insurance are developed to absorb the losses.

Still today this idea plays an important role among very poor people who can be much more strongly affected by a setback. Are there rules, that you require your multinational partners to adhere to?

M.D.: Yes. We do not work with partners who breach human or labour rights. We also participate in international initiatives with guidelines on sustainability, social responsibility and respecting human rights laws.

The most important of these is the Global Compact of the UN, which many multinationals are committed to. With that they are automatically under a certain level of observation. What do you think the future holds for development work? What will change?

M.D.: The world is changing and so is the topic of poverty. We will in the future have to work in even more difficult environments, that are marked by tensions and conflict. The battle against poverty in these regions has proven in recent years to be practically impossible.  

We also have to deal with the new global themes: climate change, worldwide migration, food security, scarcity of resources – for example clean water. These problems are hardly solvable through isolated local projects. Therefore we will continue to be active in multilateral development work.

We have to develop operations which include developing countries to make them part of the solution. To this end we are working in an intensive exchange with other countries, with international organisations, NGOs and research.

These challenges will change the face of the SDC. But not everything will change. SDC has been an innovative and creative institution since its founding, that always worked very closely with the affected populations and understood their problems. This basic orientation will also be important in the future.

Famine in the Horn of Africa

About 12 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Sudan and Uganda are suffering from famine. Of these about 2.5 million are children.

In Somalia 3.7 million people are affected by famine, and 1.4 million of the total population of 9.1 million have fled their homes.

Somalia – a so-called failed state - is suffering its worst drought for 60 years, and is also ravaged by armed conflict.

More than 400,000 people are currently living in the camp in Dadaab in Kenya.

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Martin Dahinden

Martin Dahinden (born 1955) has been director of SDC since May 2008.

Previously he was head of resources with responsibility for the network of Swiss embassies and consulates, and the former head of the Geneva-based International Centre for Humanitarian Demining.

A business economist, he had a career in the diplomatic service in various roles and locations.

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Translated from German by Clare O'Dea,


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