Geneva NGOs face uncertain future due to Covid-19 funding impact

The work of hundreds of Geneva-based NGOs is closely tied to the activities of the United Nations and international organisations in the Swiss city Keystone / Fabrice Coffrini

The immediate impact of the pandemic on Geneva-based non-governmental organisations has been restrained, a survey reveals. But NGOs fear tough times ahead linked to funding. 

This content was published on May 28, 2020 - 17:09

Some 79% of NGOs have been forced to reduce their activities due to the pandemic, a survey published on Thursday shows. One in four have cut staff, but compared to other sectors of the economy, NGOs “seem to have been relatively spared in the short term”, said the authors, describing the impact as “moderate but real”. 

Over half (54%) of the 125 NGOs – out of 450 operating in International Geneva – which answered the poll said the overall impact had been ‘mild’, while 44% described it as ‘severe’.

One-quarter said they had been forced to cut staff, while another quarter said they would do so over the next six months.

Recently, the Geneva Disarmament Platform announced it was closing after three years due to Covid pressures. But the survey authors did not find any others driven to such extremes. Around 5% (six NGOs) said the virus posed a danger for the future of their organisation, while 47% (53) said the threat was ‘substantial’. 

Frozen 

Over the past three months dozens of meetings and conferences in Geneva have been cancelled or suspended due to the pandemic.

On March 13, the coronavirus put a stop to business as usual at the UN Palais des Nations, for example. Emergency restrictions were imposed on staff and the premises, in line with those in the rest of Switzerland. The main session of the UN Human Rights Council, a popular NGO event, was forced to suspend its work. Another essential NGO gathering – the World Health Assembly – managed to hold its annual meeting last week, albeit virtually. The Palais is due to welcome some staff back next month due to the improved virus situation in Switzerland.

The vast majority of NGOs (90%) that replied to the survey said they have close working ties with the UN and 30-odd international organisations in Geneva, with two-thirds saying these relations had been adversely affected. Around 77% said they had to cancel meetings planned in Geneva. 

“The ecosystem of International Geneva – the continuous interactions between permanent missions, states and international organisations and NGOs – seized up due to the virus. But it has managed to continue to function via online meetings,” said Julien Beauvallet, head of canton Geneva’s NGO service, which commissioned the survey.

There have been some upsides: three-quarters of NGOs set up projects linked to Covid and have demonstrated a certain reactivity, he added.

Funding fears 

But clouds continue to gather over international aid agencies and charities. Oxfam, one of the world’s leading aid agencies, announced last week it is to phase out its offices in 18 countries and cut 1,500 jobs, or one third of its staff, because of the financial strain caused by the pandemic.

Just over half of Geneva-based NGOs (53%) say they are facing lower income. In all, 14% said funds had been withdrawn amid the pandemic, while 36% experienced reduced funding, and 42% delayed.

An NGO survey carried out earlier this month among 116 British international development organisations painted an even bleaker picture than that of Geneva. In all, 70% of the British NGOs expected some financial difficulty in the coming months and 43% believed they would not survive in the next six months if they didn’t receive additional funds.

Beauvallet said the financial impact on Geneva-based NGOs seemed relatively marginal so far, but that people still had major long-term worries. 

“NGOs are mostly financed by states and international organisations in annual or pluriannual cycles and there will certainly be a lag given the current crisis. The reactions of donors will be important,” he declared.

“The funding outlook is very bleak. There are big fears and uncertainties among NGOs about the donors. This includes any potential budgetary changes in next few years but also fears about the place of NGOs in International Geneva if the current interactions are not possible due to social distancing, travel restrictions and other Covid measures.”

NGOs 

The number of NGOs based in the city has risen in recent years. According to the canton’s International Geneva welcome service (CAGI), 420 (+5%) were registered last year, employing 3,109 people (+6%). Of these, 200 NGOs employed at least one person, while two-thirds employed less than ten. Most are active in the humanitarian, human rights and migration fields. 

A 2019 University of Geneva study identified a larger number (750) of Geneva-based NGOs. It found they focus on six main fields of activity: justice, peace and human rights (47% of NGOs); education, gender equality and employment (42%); combating poverty and hunger (31%); knowledge and innovation (25%); health (22%); and the environment (21%). 

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