Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has embarked on a reform of her ministry aimed at merging the development aid and foreign representation divisions.
For the second year in a row, representatives of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) have attended the annual ambassadors’ conference in Bern.
Until now, development aid and foreign representation have been two very separate divisions within the ministry.
But last year, Calmy-Rey said she wanted to break down the walls between the ministry’s two biggest sectors to save money and improve efficiency. The plan included merging embassies with SDC representations in some countries.
Observers from outside the foreign ministry voiced fears at the time that Swiss diplomacy would be taken over by development specialists.
But others believe that the minister is doing what she feels is right. “Micheline Calmy-Rey considers development to be a part of our diplomacy,” said Pierre Du Bois of Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International Studies.
The reform was launched in Mozambique, when the head of the SDC bureau there was given the ambassador’s position in Maputo earlier this year.
In Madagascar, a similar setup has been in place since 2003, although the SDC representative does not hold the title of ambassador.
The former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Bangladesh are two countries due to undergo this diplomatic change.
“It works,” said Benoît Girardin, the Swiss representative in Madagascar. “There is definitely some added value to be gained from working this way.”
“My political contacts and my discussions with business leaders help our cooperation programme, and vice versa.”
Girardin told swissinfo that the system does have its limitations. “If the cooperation programme is time-consuming, extra diplomatic tasks will force the person in charge to sacrifice something.”
“The SDC coordinator will defend his projects, while the ambassador has to accept criticism,” he added. “You have to take a step backwards when you are wearing the two hats.”
Girardin says another problem is that people abroad may not always understand the difference between the cooperation specialist and the ambassador. “We might be considered to be sticking our noses in their internal affairs,” he added.
Girardin reckons that despite its inherent limitations, regrouping the ministry’s forces in some countries is the right idea, and that the idea has gone down well within the diplomatic ranks.
Officially, the changes have not been labelled a reform, but a better use of Switzerland’s representatives abroad.
“We are still figuring out what can be done abroad,” said ministry spokesman Alessandro Delprete.
“Our diplomats and SDC representatives have welcomed the changes, particularly since it will allow some of them to garner more experience.”
According to Delprete, embassy mergers could also be on the cards, although he says it is too early to say where, or how many embassies will be affected.
Edouard Brunner, a former state secretary for foreign affairs, says he has been impressed by Calmy-Rey’s work over the past two years. “She has given priority to the right things,” he told swissinfo.
Brunner believes the changes at the foreign ministry are not as radical as some people might think, but more a natural evolution of diplomacy.
According to the former ambassador, classic two-way diplomacy is giving way to a multilateral approach. Development aid is just another part of Swiss foreign policy.
“It is not a negative evolution,” said Brunner. “But it cannot be applied in developed countries where the SDC is not present.”
swissinfo, Pierre-François Besson
Swiss diplomatic representations:
5 liaison and representation bureaus.
57 development and cooperation offices.
153 honorary representations.
The Swiss foreign ministry's budget is worth SFr1.875 billion francs, including SFr1.243 billion for the SDC.
The foreign ministry will slash its development aid to Eastern Europe by SFr33 million in 2005 and SFr57 million in 2006, with more cuts to follow.
The ministry's budget will also be cut by SFr16.6 million after giving up some of its tasks.