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Are Millennium Goals out of reach?

Children waiting outside their home in a shantytown in Sao Paulo

(Keystone)

Ahead of a major United Nations summit, Switzerland's top aid official tells swissinfo how the country is facing the challenges of the Millennium Development Goals.

Walter Fust, head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), says progress is being made but insists there is much work to be done.

In 2000 Switzerland joined 188 other nations in signing the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which includes eight goals (see Key Facts).

The main aim of the MDGs is to halve the number of people suffering from extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.

Fust is at the summit in New York as part of the Swiss delegation led by Swiss President Samuel Schmid.

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey will lead the Swiss delegation to the UN General Assembly to be held immediately after the summit.

An interim report on the MDGs approved by the government earlier this year said Switzerland had conceived and implemented successful programmes to fight poverty, as well as helping poor countries to reduce their debt load.

But Fust agrees with the report's findings that much more needs to be done.

swissinfo: The report called for more aid, but the government has other priorities such as balancing the budget and defending agricultural tariffs. Can Switzerland make a significant contribution to achieving the MDGs?

Walter Fust: We will have to make a significant contribution. It's true that agricultural policies will have to be adapted [depending on the outcome] of the Doha round of world trade talks. The developing countries will only sign up to an agreement once they have confirmation that the volume of ODA [Overseas Development Assistance] is going to be increased and they have access – without prohibitive tariffs – to markets in industrial countries.

Switzerland increased its development aid over the past ten years but it's going to stagnate for the next three due to budgetary constraints and an amendment to the Swiss constitution to keep the federal budget balanced.

But Switzerland is bound to increase aid again and we'll put a lot of emphasis on how developing countries can be better integrated into the world trading system.

swissinfo: The United States seems to be attempting to torpedo the MDGs. If successful, how big an impact will this have on international efforts to reduce poverty and hunger?

W.F.: I cannot predict the outcome. We may be faced with a very slim document at the end, which might be very generally worded.

I think we have to differentiate between the political, psychological and real impact. I would say the political impact will be very high, and it certainly will not help achieve the goal of harmonising an agenda for all donor and partner countries.

Psychologically, it could backfire on the US because it will have to explain [its position] to the whole world and be prepared to put forward better proposals, because you cannot talk about security all the time without providing support for poverty reduction in order to make the world a safer place.

swissinfo: And the real impact?

W.F.: We all know that the US is increasing its official aid, but it's not increasing its official aid according to international expectations. So it will not have a very large impact because all the other nations will certainly continue [with aid efforts] because they are bound to do so.

It is only Switzerland and Japan that have yet to announce a substantial increase in aid. But the key question, on the practical side, is whether nations' parliaments will ask why they should allocate so much public money while leading nations are not providing financial backing.

swissinfo: One of the MDGs is to combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases. This is particularly pertinent for Switzerland because of its large pharma sector. Is the SDC working with drug companies to ensure access to affordable drugs?

W.F.: We have a good dialogue with the Swiss pharmaceutical industry. They are well aware of the development dimensions and we do not only cooperate in the HIV/Aids field but also with malaria medications and tuberculosis and other diseases.

On the one hand, I think the pharmaceutical industry is well aware of the [high] costs of drugs and on the other, we cannot expect that the private sector will become more philanthropic. If it were to lessen its commitment to research, we would never have drugs to treat the diseases which mainly affect developing countries.

I also think that it is extremely important that research efforts are better coordinated internationally, and we might have to put more public money into research, and in cross-subsidising drugs in order to reduce prices.

swissinfo: So the SDC sees itself playing the role of coordinator or middleman between the drug companies and developing countries?

W.F.: We have meetings and forums where we discuss those issues and get to know each other's point of view, so we are playing the role of facilitator.

swissinfo-interview: Dale Bechtel

Key facts

Millennium Development Goals:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
2. Achieve universal primary education.
3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
4. Reduce child mortality.
5. Improve maternal health.
6. Combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases.
7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
8. Develop a global partnership for development.

end of infobox


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