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Fighting poverty through solidarity

In 1941 SLA sent food packages across war-torn Europe. SAH

During its 70-year history, Swiss Labour Assistance (SLA) has assisted refugees and disaster victims, supported workers' rights and helped the unemployed.

But the non-governmental organisation says it will not be resting on its laurels, as poverty is still as prevalent today as when it was founded in 1936.

Created by the centre-left Social Democrat Party and the trade unions, SLA was formed during a period of economic downturn and high unemployment in Switzerland.

One of its first tasks was to organise holidays for malnourished children from poorer families, where they received extra food.

The 1930s were also a time of political upheaval in Europe and when the Spanish civil war broke out in 1936, SLA sprang into action.

“The Swiss government did not want Switzerland to take part, so SLA decided to send humanitarian aid and focus on children and the victims of the conflict,” Ruth Daellenbach, SLA’s managing director, told swissinfo.

During and after the Second World War, the NGO continued its international efforts helping war refugees and sending food parcels across Europe.

However, the NGO did not forget its political roots and cooperated with unions to offer training to the former Yugoslavia, Greece and Tunisia during the 1950s and 1960s. It also provided disaster relief work.


At this time “solidarity” was understood as bringing technical and financial help to developing countries. But in the 1970s people started to examine what caused poverty and discrimination, which brought about a change in attitudes.

“The perception of solidarity changed from going and teaching people to giving people support so they can develop independently,” explained Daellenbach.

The 1970s and 80s also saw more SLA involvement in political campaigns, such as fighting against tougher foreigner laws in Switzerland.

This was a time of heated debate over migration to the country. The first SLA projects to help immigrants started in 1972 and it still provides training and integration courses for foreigners.

Unemployment again reared its head in Switzerland in the 1980s and SLA pioneered work helping jobless people back onto their feet.

However, funding problems meant that some projects had to be stopped and posts were cut at SLA in 1999 as part of a major shake-up in the organisation.


SLA is now active in 12 developing countries. This includes helping to rebuild areas in Sri Lanka devastated by the 2004 tsunami.

“In international aid, we are mainly focused on rural development, labour and trade issues and on participation and democratic reforms,” Zoltan Doka, the head of SLA’s international department, told swissinfo.

In Switzerland it continues to run holiday camps for underprivileged children, but with a focus on integration and pedagogical needs. Helping immigrants and the unemployed is also a key task.

Daellenbach says despite the changes over the years, the organisation’s concept of solidarity has remained constant.

“In countries where we have been for many years, we do capacity building and institutional development to support the local partners so they can fight for their development and rights themselves. It is solidarity through partnership,” she said.

This year the NGO is focusing on working conditions. Its latest campaign highlights the plight of sugar-cane workers in Bolivia which the NGO claims live in “slave-like” conditions.

There is, says SLA, therefore still a lot of work to be done, especially internationally.

“If we compare now and 70 years ago the challenges we are facing today are different but for a lot of people nothing has changed. They are still living in poverty as people did decades ago,” said Doka.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

SLA is celebrating its 70th jubilee with a special event on September 8, 2006 in Zurich.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey will make the opening address.

There will also be a panel discussion entitled “Which work for which development?” which includes the former interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss.

SLA has projects in 12 countries, as well as Kosovo and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Development projects take place in Bolivia, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Romania, Serbia and South Africa. Humanitarian aid is given to India, Chad and Sri Lanka.

SLA is part of Solidar, a European aid network, and a partner of Swiss Solidarity, the fund-raising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

Its turnover is almost SFr20 million ($16.3 million) and comes from donations and membership fees as well as federal and community grants and Swiss Solidarity.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR