Mixed messages in Swiss goals for UN poverty fight

The next round of the global poverty fight focuses on sustainable development Keystone

The Swiss contribution to reducing global poverty relies on a combination of direct democracy, deep pockets and self-interest that some say sends conflicting signals.

This content was published on November 11, 2015 - 11:00

For the past three years, the public has helped to define Switzerland’s contribution to the next round of the United Nations’ anti-poverty efforts, the so-called Sustainable Development GoalsExternal link, or SDGs. These are the UN’s 17 new, non-binding global goals, with 169 specific targets, on issues ranging from ending poverty to protecting the environment.

An autumn hearing in Bern that drew more than 100 participants officially “marked the end of a three-year process” for shaping the Swiss positionExternal link, according to Michael Gerber, a Swiss special envoy for global sustainable development, who helped led the process.

Switzerland will emphasise water security, health, sustainable peace and inclusive societies, as well as gender equality, rights of women and empowerment of women and girls.

There also is a strong focus on issues such as migration and development, disaster risk reduction, as well as sustainable consumption and production.

“With every event that we organised, we had more people coming and uttering their voice and their positions, and so we tried to bring them all together,” Gerber told on the sidelines of the gathering. “This shows that people are very engaged.”

Swiss concerns

For the Swiss, goals such as the rule of law and access to clean water are particularly important, since they are basic to peace and justice.

“We have a very ambitious agenda, and we have to do our level best to achieve it,” Gerber said. “We will certainly not be in a position to say, ‘OK, there is no more war in the world, there is no more poverty in the world,’ but we have to get as far as we can.”

It’s not just a matter of giving money and support to developing countries – Switzerland also must improve to meet the 2030 goals, even in the area of raising the living standard for some of its own citizens.

“They all apply to Switzerland”, added Gerber. “You can say in some cases, we are already very far. But if you take the poverty goal, if you measure it in relation to the national poverty index, there’s still a lot to do in Switzerland.”

Switzerland remains one of the wealthiest with a GDP per capita of about CHF81,545 per year, one of the highest in the world, according to the World Bank. However, about 7.7% of the population – or about one of every 13 residents – lives below the national poverty line.

According to the Federal Statistical Office, Switzerland’s poverty lineExternal link is earning less than CHF2,200 a month for a single person or less than CHF4,050 a month for a couple with two children.

Those would be adequate figures for many Europeans, but in Switzerland the mandatory private health insurance, expensive rental housing and other high costs of living put financial pressure particularly on single-parent families, unskilled workers and adults who live alone.

At the hearing, the global anti-poverty fight was summed up by five P’s – people, prosperity, planet, peace and partnership.

Questions ranged from the emphasis on English in communicating the goals to Switzerland’s role as an arms exporter. A panel of speakers included a youth representative, a spokesman for Swiss food giant Nestlé, a University of Bern development expert and a policy expert for Alliance Sud, a Swiss think tank of six leading development organisations and charities.

Many non-governmental organisations are sceptical because they say Switzerland will have a tough time implementing some of the new goals for sustainable development, such as those for lowering waste production or in reducing the gap between the rich and the poor in the country. They say the government’s plans to cut spending over the next few years also will make fulfilling the goals more difficult.

Alliance SudExternal link, for example, welcomes the 2030 agenda as a compromise of sorts, but believes it is riddled with contradictions. The group also questions how much governments and private industry can be held accountable.

Manuel Sager, the director general of the Swiss Agency for Development and CooperationExternal link (SDC), which took the lead for the process of public engagement, told the hearing that to accomplish the goals “the first factor certainly is political will”.

But according to Rolf Kappel, a professor emeritus at the University of Zurich who specialises in the problems of developing countries, the new goals are too broad and ill-defined. The first set of UN goals focused on poverty reduction in developing countries. The second set aim at more sustainable economies, ecologies and societies in all countries.

“The SDGs include a large number of fuzzy targets, for which adequate indicators and data are not available,” Kappel wrote in a newsletter published by the academic centreExternal link he headed for 22 years.

"For all these targets the monitoring and evaluation of the agenda’s progress will be more opinion-based than evidence-based,” he wrote. “This in turn bears the risk that the SDGs are taken less seriously by decision makers and will impede decisive actions.”

Kappel argues that the world has changed since the last set of goals were formed, with disenchantment replacing high-flying hopes. And while the new SDGs might please developing countries and organisations that produce reports and organize conferences, he wrote, “the enormous broadening of the scope of the new agenda may dilute the global dedication to poverty reduction, and the poor may lose out. That must not happen.”

Costs and benefits

The Swiss government plans to implement the policy goals as part of its strategy on sustainable development for 2016-2019 and in its strategy on international cooperation.

It will be up to Swiss parliament to determine whether the Swiss contributionExternal link will meet the UN-recommended level of 0.7% of gross national income to official development assistance. With its shift to the right in this year’s election, parliament is likely to be less inclined to spend a lot for official development aid.

That’s the world target first pledged at a 1970 UN General Assembly, and since reaffirmed at various world summits and conferences.

Pierrette Rey, a spokeswoman for the environmental group WWF SuisseExternal link, said the 2030 goals are ambitious but feasible, like the previous set of UN goals for the first 15 years of the new millennium that were seen as very ambitious at the time.

For her group, the top priorities are to fight against climate change, reduce the Swiss ecological footprint and safeguard nature’s biodiversity.

“Switzerland is not exemplary in many domains. If everyone were to live with the same lifestyles as an average Swiss citizen, we would need almost three planets and this is not sustainable,” she told

“Our Swiss banks are financing industries that are having a huge impact on the climate and the environment, so we do need big changes indeed,” she added.

Room for improvement

For one of the participants at the hearing, Ignacio Packer, some of the confusion that others had about the global goals may have been unavoidable.

“Not surprisingly, there’s a bit of scepticism that comes out from different people. I can understand that, especially people that have not been involved in the process,” said Packer, the secretary general of the children’s rights-promoting Terre des Hommes International FederationExternal link, whose own involvement began three years ago.

“There’s been quite an effort to be able to reach out to different organisations, to get people involved, and so on,” he said of the Swiss government’s outreach, “but it’s something which is really very complex, so how do you make something complex simple? It’s impossible.”

The UN development agenda is built around the language of enforcing human rights and that will help to accomplish the goals, he said, but there are both strengths and inconsistencies in the Swiss approach. For example, some of new international agreements adopted this year, including SDGs and a global framework to reduce disaster riskExternal link, call for support of migration as a matter of respect for human rights.

During Swiss voting to elect a new parliament this year, the election campaigns focused mainly on migration because of the headlines on the Syrian refugee crisis with a desperate influx of tens of thousands arriving in Europe. Most experts said the right mainly benefited from the heightened media attention even though Switzerland up to now has not received many asylum seekers from Syria.

“It’s really a mix and there’s a lot of incoherence”, Packer said of the competing messages generated in Switzerland. “I’m really convinced that a lot of it is guided by the fact that we’re really looking for a reduction of inequality. I really feel that it’s genuine in a lot of the work that gets done.”

“But then the political system that we have seems to create some incoherence in that message which is pushed by the people in the front line of the negotiations,” he said, referring to the nation’s 49% voter turnout in federal elections and recent balloting to support more restrictive immigration. “It’s like what the right arm is trying to do, the left arm is not aware of it.”

The UN’s previous round of global poverty reduction – the eight Millennium Development Goals that world leaders agreed to 15 years earlier – helped lift more than one billion people out of extreme poverty, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.

For the newest round, the UN summit in New York adopted the final UN document in late September, with an estimated cost of $3.5-$5 trillion a year to accomplish the goals by 2030. They call for eradicating hunger and poverty, achieving gender equality, raising living standards and taking strong and immediate action to reduce global warming.

Ban said they “commit all of us to be responsible global citizens, caring for the less fortunate as well as for our planet’s ecosystems and climate action on which all life depends”.

At the 193-nation UN General Assembly that followed the UN summit, Swiss President Simonetta SommarugaExternal link said the ambitious 2030 agenda “shows the UN’s ability to renew itself”.

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