New Geneva mayor launches wake-up call

The World Trade Organisation and the UN headquarters in Geneva Keystone

Geneva's mayor, Manuel Tornare, says the city rests too much on its laurels and must adapt if it wants to keep its international organisations and attract new ones.

This content was published on June 28, 2008 - 18:25

Tornare, who took over the reins on June 1, told journalists that local and federal authorities had to work hard to improve infrastructure and especially housing conditions to beat off tough competition from abroad.

Geneva is home to the headquarters of 22 international organisations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

"International Geneva", as it is known, is worth around SFr5 billion ($4 billion) a year to the canton.

But in recent years officials have been at pains to stress the severe competition Geneva faces from abroad, notably from Singapore, China and India.

The UN refugee agency last year said it is to relocate 155 of its 900 staff, probably to Asia, in an effort to cut costs. And WHO is also relocating a number of Geneva-based functions abroad.

The accommodation problem

Local authorities have commissioned a report looking at the challenges facing Geneva International to be published in autumn. One of the huge "headaches" for international organisations – and locals - is the question of housing, said Tornare.

"There has not been sufficient commitment to the issue of housing," he told swissinfo. "We have realised that if we don't find solutions this could damage the image of Geneva International – it's urgent."

Geneva is notorious for its tight planning rules that choke the supply of new homes, driving up prices.

"We are well aware that there are other cities that could make available to WTO or other organisations bigger, more luxurious offices, with easier administrative procedures. We really have to move to meet the demands of our times. That's a little bit a Swiss problem. We've slightly rested on our laurels and fallen asleep," he added.

But Blaise Godet, Switzerland's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, tried to allay fears and said he didn't have any indications that organisations were planning to leave Geneva.

"Housing remains a black spot, but the working conditions in Geneva are very satisfactory: the quality of buildings, transport system and peaceful political system. I'm not saying that everything is ideal, but what we offer is not bad," he explained. "But like a hotel owner who manages a good hotel, you need to keep your eyes on the competition."

Building work

In November 2006 a group of experts published a nine-point plan aimed at reinforcing and expanding the city's position as a centre for global governance.

To help convince organisations of their good intentions as international host city, at the beginning of June 2008 local authorities announced that seven new buildings would be erected in Geneva to the tune of SFr500 million. The money will be provided by the Foundation for International Organisation Buildings in Geneva, set up by the canton and the Swiss government, in the form of interest-free loans repayable over 50 years.

The renovation and expansion of the WTO headquarters represents the biggest chunk, amounting to SFr130 million. Work should be completed by 2013, when the WTO would be able to house more than 1,100 staff in a single location.

At the end of May Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said that as a city hosting international organisations, Geneva faced fierce competition from other cites, including Bonn and Vienna.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper reported last year that the WTO was threatening to move to Hong Kong, Singapore or elsewhere if the Swiss refused to meet the organisation's demands.

Work on the WTO will be followed by three other projects: a SFr30-million logistics centre for the ICRC; the expansion of buildings at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern), home of the "Big Bang" machine (SFr13.5 million), and others at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (SFr20 million).

The foundation is also planning a SFr60-million building to house permanent missions from developing countries and another for non-governmental organisations, as well as a SFr200-million "health campus" close to WHO.

In addition, international organisations are themselves investing SFr650 million on urgent renovation work. These include the World Intellectual Property Office (SFr150 million), the International Labour Organization and the International Telecommunication Union.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

International Geneva

Geneva is home to the headquarters of 22 international organisations, such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and International Committee of the Red Cross.

The city is the European seat of the United Nations.

"International Geneva", as it is known, is worth around SFr5 billion ($4 billion) a year to the canton.

In all some 40,000 international diplomats and civil servants are based in Geneva; in addition there are around 2,400 staff working for non-governmental organisations.

Around 8,500 staff work for the United Nations family in Geneva, which is the largest concentration of UN personnel in the world.

Geneva's international role is not new; following the First World War it became home to the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation.

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