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Post in comeback after losing bread and butter

It may be the world's second oldest international organisation, but change has become the watchword at the Swiss-based Universal Postal Union (UPU).

On World Post Day on Friday, the UPU celebrated its founding and the 100th anniversary of the installation in Bern of a major statue created to symbolise the worldwide postal service.

Founded in Bern 135 years ago to promote universal postal access, the UPU is now trying to help postal services meet 21st century digital requirements and steer them through global economic ups and downs.

The original statue inauguration in October 1909 was a grandiose affair, attended by high-ranking officials from various countries amid three days of festivities. This time, the mayor of Bern and the head of Swiss Post were among the dignitaries present.

The UPU say their organisation continues to be relevant today even though the advent of technological advances such as email have made serious dents in the volume of letters being sent.

The only United Nations agency located in the Swiss capital, the UPU has 191 member countries, the majority of which are developing nations.

One of its main goals, ensuring universal access to postal services, still needs to be achieved in developing countries where up to 25 per cent of the population do not have access. There is also room for improvement in the quality of mail delivery times: around 40 per cent of mail does not arrive on time globally.

And crucially, UPU communications expert Faryal Mirza says there is an important part to play in helping modernise the postal service, which like other industries has struggled under the recent global economic crisis and from changing communication methods.

"Once upon a time traditional letter mail was the bread and butter of the postal business, but there is an impact being felt there as volume has dropped," she told swissinfo.ch. "But at the same time there has been a balancing effect where people are ordering more goods online, and who is delivering them? The post is mostly delivering them."

Winds of change

"We see these times as an opportunity for diversifying, being more innovative and also cashing in our chips in the sense that the post as an institution actually enjoys quite a lot of trust in the eyes of the consumer. This kind of trust on the part of the consumer has been lost in the banks."

In Switzerland, for example, the post office had a rush on people opening new accounts to deposit their money, worried their banks would fail during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

Mirza notes that the UPU "is not blind to the wind of change", and among its moves in the past decade was setting up a technology arm to find ways of capitalising on digital innovations in e-commerce, and mail sent via the internet and email. These include the use of digital post marks, signatures and registered delivery.

The UPU has also issued a statement paper, Ten reasons why the world needs the UPU, in which it says postal services still need a "defender, protector, arbitrator and promoter". More specifically, UPU's job now is to facilitate knowledge gathering and help national services adapt.

"We have seen quite clearly that the post of today is not the postal service of ten to 15 years ago, but there is a will to adapt," said Mirza.

"I think the UPU will constantly be looking to see what kind of technology advances are taking place, how the post can adapt, where the post can find a place."

"We think that this organisation plays a major role in enabling the universal postal traffic to work well," said Masserini Mariano, spokesman for Swiss Post.

Canton Bern councillor Urs Gasche, one of the special guests at Friday's ceremony, noted: "In times of electronic computing it is very important that somebody sets standards by which mail services can work together internationally. The UPU is also very important for modernising postal services all over the world."

He added: "For the canton of Bern and the city of Bern it is a very important thing to have international organisations in Bern."

Jessica Dacey, swissinfo.ch

In brief

The Universal Postal Union was founded in 1874 in Bern after a treaty was signed to unify conflicting international postal services and regulations into a single postal territory for the exchange of letter post items and with a single rate for all.

The UPU is the second-oldest international organisation in the world and the only UN agency with headquarters in the Swiss capital.

Its Council of Administration consists of 41 member countries and meets each year at the UPU headquarters in Bern. It ensures the continuity of the UPU's work between congresses, supervises its activities and studies regulatory, administrative, legislative and legal issues.

Today the 191 members make up the largest physical distribution network in the world.

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100-year-old monument

UPU member countries decided in the early 1990s that a sculpture would be a fitting tribute to the organisation and its founding in 1874. A European design competition was launched in 1902 and 122 plans submitted to the Swiss parliament. French sculptor René de Saint-Marceaux designed the winning model of five female messengers passing letters to each other, signifying the five continents, and a bronze figure to symbolise the city of Bern.

De Saint-Marceaux built the sculpture in Paris and the work was sent by rail to Bern. The Swiss cabinet decided the statue would be located at the Kleine Schanze park. It was inaugurated on October 4, 1909 as part of three-day celebrations.

On October 9, 2009 a new plaque was mounted on the statue. Dignitaries attending the ceremony included Mayor of Bern Alexander Tschäppät, canton Bern executive councillor Urs Gasche and the board chairman of Swiss Post, Claude Béglé.

To mark the anniversary Swiss Post and France's La Poste launched two commemorative stamps.

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