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Development aid As refugees flood into Europe, Switzerland cuts development aid

How should Switzerland be helping developing nations?


Switzerland is cutting international development spending, sparking protest from the political left and humanitarian organisations. While Europe is in the throes of a migration crisis, the effectiveness of aid is up for debate.

“In a globalised, inter-connected world, we have no other choice but to take action,” says Philippe Besson, head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) office in South Sudan, and formerly in charge of questions relating to the effectiveness of Swiss aid.

The humanitarian situation in South Sudan, which has been ravaged by civil war since 2013, is probably less well known than what is happening in Syria, but in many ways it is just as serious. 

“Almost nothing works any more in South Sudan. Nearly half the population is vulnerable, either because they live in a conflict zone or, in other areas, because they are threatened by famine,” he says. 

The SDC's work, in partnership with various NGOs, focuses on humanitarian aid, in particular protection of the population and food security. 

It is difficult to carry out development projects in a crisis situation, as the country's economy has collapsed and much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. An SDC water and sanitation project is nonetheless still underway in the north-west of the country.

“Since the civil war broke out, we have had to scale down our objectives,” he explains. “We are focusing on consolidating the project, and have given up for now on creating a public service that works, as the Ministry of Water no longer has the necessary resources to coordinate and manage the infrastructure.”

Despite the difficulties, Besson is convinced that taking action remains a moral obligation. He says: “We can claim and document that the international community has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, but we can also say that during that time the parties were able to wage civil war. We must constantly ask ourselves what the limits are and how we will continue.”

Besson firmly believes that the arguments in favour of international cooperation still outweigh those that speak for a withdrawal: “Some researchers argue that we should pull out. However, in South Sudan, this would mean coldly accepting that tens of thousands of people will die, mainly those who are not involved in the fighting, that is women, children and the disabled. This is not acceptable.”

100 million francs less

Independently of the difficulties encountered on the ground, Switzerland is currently questioning its aid policy. This debate is stoked by the unprecedented wave of refugees streaming into Europe.

While reviewing the 2016 budget, the majority rightwing parliament recently accepted cuts of CHF100 million ($102 million) for international cooperation and development. The SDC does not know yet the exact consequences of these savings, but says its programmes will be affected across the board.

This decision sparked the indignation of the centre-left Social Democratic Party, which denounced “a hypocritical policy lacking long-term vision”. The conservative right Swiss People’s Party supported the move, deeming it “necessary to cut back in areas where growth has been strongest”.

The NGO coalition Alliance Sud considers this decision “short-sighted and lacking in solidarity”. Eva Schmassmann, a development expert at the organisation, believes that “Switzerland should, on the contrary, increase its aid, given the current global challenges”.

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Development aid is however not necessarily the right weapon for solving the migration crisis, although it is often presented as such in political debates.

This view is problematic, says Stefan Schlegel, a member of the think tank Foraus (Swiss Forum on Foreign Policy), who co-produced a study on the links between migration and development (“Does economic development prevent migration?”). “If we regard development aid as a tool against migratory pressure, we are in danger of instrumentalising it and thus reducing its effectiveness,” argues the researcher. In his view, aid should not deviate from its primary goal, which is promoting personal autonomy and economic development. 

The study also shows that economic growth helps to finance migration, and thus stimulates it rather than stemming it. 

“The chances that aid from a country like Switzerland can truly change the economic direction of a country are slim, and even if it does, the effect will rather be to increase the mobility of the population,” Schlegel believes. He cites the example of Turkey after World War II. “Growth meant that the Turks had more resources, so they gained more autonomy and could escape from the poverty trap that had prevented them from moving.”

The study's authors recommend accepting the increase in migration, opening legal channels for controlling immigration and taking full advantage of its positive effects. “There are still projects that are very effective, especially those designed to strengthen institutions, fight against corruption and improve women's rights,” says Schlegel, while underscoring the importance of emergency aid.


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Some observers adopt even more radical positions. “Development aid has never helped any country in Africa to develop,” asserts Francis Kaptinde, former spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The journalist of Beninese origin and teacher at Sciences Po Paris says he is against development aid because he believes that “it is useless.” “It's a way to salve consciences, and perpetuates the idea of ​​dominated and dominant,” he laments.

Instead, he advocates a strategy of leaving African countries to manage their problems by themselves, while fighting against corruption, by helping them to improve their governance and buying their raw materials at fair prices. He believes that nothing can prevent people from going into exile. “If people are desperate they will leave, no matter what walls are put up. If you are happy at home, you will not cross the ocean,” he adds. 

Switzerland seeks to bolster fragile states

“In 2016, we want to strengthen our core mission of fighting poverty wherever state structures are weakened or absent,” declared the director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Manuel Sager, at the organisation's annual media conference on January 29.

More than 40 countries worldwide, with a total population of some 1.5 billion people, are today classed as fragile or affected by violence and conflict. The SDC emphasises that, while it cannot resolve any conflicts itself, it contributes to positive change by addressing the root causes.

The Swiss government's “Strategy for Sustainable Development 2016-2019,” adopted at the beginning of this year, also works towards implementing the global 2030 Agenda. This framework document, approved in September 2015 by the 193 UN member States, sets 17 sustainable development goals.

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Translated from French by Julia Bassam,

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