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Geneva puts positive spin on UN staff exodus

The UN buildings dominate the Geneva landscape Keystone

A senior Swiss diplomat has played down suggestions that Geneva may be losing its sparkle as a destination for international organisations.

Last week it emerged that the UN refugee agency is to relocate 155 of its 900 staff, most likely to Asia, in an effort to cut costs.

The World Health Organization is also relocating a number of Geneva-based functions abroad but says it is unable to put a figure on how many staff will be affected.

“It’s the right of every international organisation to practice sound management and basically we, the Swiss, can subscribe to these measures,” Blaise Godet, Switzerland’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told swissinfo.

“However we expect – and we have no reason to doubt – that the measures be taken on the basis of duly established needs… that it’s not anti-Geneva and it’s just for the sake of saving some money.”

Geneva is home to the headquarters of 22 international organisations, such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and International Committee of the Red Cross.

Together they employ around 35,000 people; in addition there are around 2,400 staff working for non-governmental organisations. “International Geneva”, as it is known, is worth around SFr5 billion ($4 billion) a year to the canton.

But in recent years officials have been at pains to stress the severe competition Geneva faces from abroad, notably from Singapore, China and India.

Centre for diplomacy

In November last year a group of experts published a nine-point plan aimed at reinforcing and expanding the city’s position as a centre for global governance.

On Monday it was announced that up to SFr400 million is expected to be spent on new building projects over the next five years, with the same amount set aside for renovating existing structures.

“In terms of current trends international Geneva is faring rather well but that should not make us complacent and rest on our laurels,” said Godet.

“From time to time you have a few relocations – that’s the case with the refugee agency – but looked at as a whole we are seeing an increase in the number of diplomats and civil servants.”

Godet also had some reassuring words regarding Ban Ki-moon’s first visit to Geneva as UN secretary-general, which took place at the weekend.

Ahead of the trip there had been some speculation as to why it had taken the South Korean three and a half months to find time to visit the world body’s European headquarters. But Ban stressed the importance of Geneva to the UN system, according to Godet.

New centre

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) confirmed on Tuesday that around 155 out of 900 positions in Geneva could be moved to a new centre towards the end of 2007. It said no decision would be taken until May.

“The aim is to ensure that services are located where they are most efficient and cost-effective,” it said in a statement.

“UNHCR considers that it has a moral obligation to keep its administrative costs to a minimum and to devote as many of its resources as possible to its programmes of protection and assistance for refugees and other people of its concern.”

Possible new locations include India, Malaysia, Hungary and Romania, the agency said. Jobs slated to be moved fall under human resources, financial and supply management.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

More recent arrivals to “international Geneva” include the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Malaria and Tuberculosis and the permanent secretariat of the Stockholm Convention on hazardous chemicals.

Around 8,500 staff work for the United Nations family in Geneva, which is the largest concentration of UN personnel in the world.

The Swiss are currently looking to streamline existing legislation defining privileges, immunity and financial assistance accorded to international organisations and diplomatic missions.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR