International Geneva

The changing face of International Geneva

New York, Nairobi, Vienna, Geneva: In the world of global governance, competition between host cities fighting for a slice of the action remains fierce. Institutions setting up headquarters in a city bring an ability to influence global affairs along with tax-paying expats, and their expertise, capital and networks.   

Skizzomat (Illustration)

Geneva, the original globalist city, remains a magnet for new organisations and initiatives. Local statistics show that the number of institutions, especially NGOs and foundations (90 new NGOs in three years), and staff continues to rise steadily (+2-3% annually to almost 34,000 in 2019). 

“It’s difficult to meet the demand, which shows NGOs’ interest for International Geneva,” explained Julien Beauvallet, head of the NGO Service of the International Geneva Welcome Centre (CAGI).

That can sound paradoxical, because life in Geneva is expensive. Pressures to transfer international aid efforts away from the Swiss city to less expensive locations have been growing in recent years.  

The cost of setting up professionally in Geneva, one of the most expensive cities in the world, remains a major obstacle for organisations like NGOs on tight budgets. “You quickly start getting into six figures,” said Beauvallet. 

Financial pressures are a huge concern for organisations in Geneva, made worse more recently by the coronavirus pandemic, which has tested the limits of the multilateral system. UN agencies, international organisations and NGOs have scrambled to respond under lockdowns. Meanwhile, the fate of cash-strapped NGOs is unclear, and will depend largely on donors, according to the canton.  

The long-term trend may be for big international agencies to transfer certain resources to the field or to cheaper locations, but Geneva’s pull-factor remains strong for other reasons.

One is that donors, decision makers and experts are already there. Geneva is not only home to the United Nations European headquarters and 36 international organisations, but also to over 700 non-governmental organisations, research institutes and 179 diplomatic missions.  

More recently, they have been joined by teams of international justice investigators and experts based at the UN to discretely gather and preserve evidence, and to prepare possible future criminal cases on serious international crimes committed in Syria and Myanmar. 

Another reason is a concerted Swiss effort to ensure that the city continues to be a centre of global policy making.  

The Swiss have moved to position Geneva as a global centre of expertise on peace, security and disarmament, climate, health and digital issues. 

“The world in which we live is increasingly interdependent and international cooperation is therefore increasingly necessary. Geneva has become the place to be for those wanting to participate collectively in the construction of a better world,” said Olivier Coutau, the cantonal delegate in charge of International Geneva relations. 

As digital governance, cyber security, artificial intelligence and other innovations have emerged as priorities, Switzerland has encouraged, hand in hand with business, new initiatives such as the Cyber Peace Institute, the Swiss Digital Initiative Foundation and the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator Foundation.   

In parallel, the Swiss have helped build 20 coordination platforms to exploit Geneva’s local networks, such as the Geneva Environment Network, the SDG Lab and the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform, which bring together actors from the private and public sectors, civil society and universities.  

For its part, the University of Geneva has set its sights on building the “capital of peace” into a hub for responsible business practice, funding the Centre for Business and Human Rights – the first centre dedicated to dialogue and research on human rights at a European business school.  

Peace, human rights and international justice remain key focuses. From Geneva, the Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body within the UN system, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, supported by a myriad of NGOs and academics, promote and protect human rights around the world. 

“As long as the UN and the international system is open to civil society, there is a pull effect here in Geneva,” said Beauvallet. 

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