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Concerns over embassy-aid merger plans

Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter has been a main driver behind the merger Keystone

The Swiss foreign ministry plans to merge the offices of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) with its embassies. Some experts see this as a coherent move, but non-governmental groups fear it may weaken development efforts.

“The aim is to have one single representation in each country. This will either involve the SDC offices being integrated into the embassies or, if there is only an SDC office, transforming it into a diplomatic mission,” State Secretary at the foreign ministry Yves Rossier told Swiss national television on Tuesday.

The news of this network re-organisation aimed at improving coordination of Swiss activities abroad was announced on the sidelines of the annual ambassadors’ meeting. The project would be completed in stages, ending in 2017.

The change is intended to prevent confusion that sometimes arises between economic promotion, human rights and development aid activities.

“Imagine if in the same country we supported a Swiss mining firm and a programme aimed at defining better conditions for mining exploration. If the two activities are not coordinated we could be criticized for cancelling out with our left hand what we do with our right,” said Rossier.


“Good for Swiss image”

Peter Niggli, director of Alliance Sud, an umbrella organisation representing six large Swiss NGOs, said he was “very sceptical” about the announcement, fearing a weakening of Swiss development aid.

“When there are differences of opinion, such as in the example given by Mr Rossier, there are fears that Switzerland’s economic and geostrategic interests will win over all other considerations,” he argued.

Up to now Switzerland has kept its development aid policy separate from its general overarching foreign interests, and has managed to focus on the real needs of developing nations.

“Today this policy is in danger,” warned Niggli.

Nicola Forster, president of Foraus, a student-based foreign policy think-tank, believes that people shouldn’t paint too bleak a picture.

“These kinds of conflicts of interest are not common in Swiss foreign policy. They already existed in the past. We are not experiencing a paradigm shift,” he added.

For former State Secretary at the foreign ministry Franz von Däniken, the reorganisation makes sense: “It’s a good thing for the unity of action, coordination, and image of Switzerland abroad.”

The fears raised by the NGOs are unjustified, said von Däniken.

“Defending Switzerland’s economic interests and development aid activities are totally compatible. In the long term it’s in the Swiss economy’s interest that poorer countries develop,” he added, pointing to Mali where there are numerous development activities and where Swiss firms could be interested in the future.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is Switzerland’s international cooperation agency within the Swiss foreign ministry. It was created in 1961.

It comprises emergency aid and reconstruction, as well as development aid departments. The Swiss Humanitarian Aid unit, which is operational during disasters, is an integral part of SDC.
In 2012 SDC spent CHF1.85 billion ($2 billion) on its global activities. It employs around 1,500 people in Switzerland and around the world.

As well as its own activities, SDC also supports multilateral organisations and contributes financially to programmes and projects carried out by NGOs and international organisations. 

The State Secretariat for the Economy (Seco) is another major state actor for Swiss development aid.
In June 2012 the Swiss parliament decided to increase development aid to 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2015.

Major cultural change

The desire to break down barriers between SDC and the foreign ministry is something that existed well before current foreign minister Didier Burkhalter took office.

Moves to bring the two groups closer together have been introduced over recent years, notably in the human resources and communication departments.

In 2003 former Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey announced that she wanted to strengthen Swiss action abroad.

“For a long time the SDC has been an autonomous set-up, and still is partially if you talk about budgets,” said Forster. “Nonetheless a major cultural change occurred in 2008 when Martin Dahinden took over from Walter Fust as head of the SDC. Burkhalter and Rossier want further integration and to build a more coherent foreign policy.”

For a long time the SDC had the reputation as being a focal point for third-world activism, but it has changed recently, he added.

“The SDC and foreign ministry staff now have the feeling that they are defending similar interests and not just those of their department. Resistance to change is still there, but the benefits of better cooperation are obvious,” he declared.

The Foraus president stressed that recent integration projects have already been carried out abroad, which can be used as examples to follow.

Niggli admitted that these pilot projects have not had negative consequences but warned that there may be trouble ahead.

“In Nepal or Mozambique it went well. But these mergers will now apply to countries that are much more interesting for Switzerland and its firms from an economic perspective. I’m thinking in particular of Myanmar where this kind of integration risks causing problems,” he said.

Switzerland has nearly 150 embassies/missions attached to international organisations and general consulates across the world.

The foreign ministry says the resources of these representations are much reduced. Most of them comprise not more than two diplomatic staff, apart from the ambassador, and often cover neighbouring countries.

The consulates play a role similar to communal administration for Swiss based in or passing through a particular country.


They can issue official documents, such as passports and identity cards, and assist citizens in exercising their electoral rights,  as well as with questions of nationality and marital status.

(Translated from French by Simon Bradley)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR