The three countries that make up the region (Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC) are closely interconnected and have shaped each other’s development. Since they gained their independence, this continued interdependence has fed into cross-border conflicts that have caused enormous human suffering and brought state institutions to the brink of collapse. The three countries have signed peace agreements and held elections. However, it has become clear in recent years that these elections have failed to cement peace, and various conflicts endure. Institutions remain fragile and the people of the three countries have yet to reap the benefits of peace.

The Great Lakes region, comprised of Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern DRC, is a priority region for the South Cooperation Department of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). This fragility is an obstacle to the strengthening of regional institutions and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Because the prospects of these three countries are intertwined, regional stability is a basic condition for improving the well-being of the local populations. In terms of business and trade, the region is rich in natural resources and offers many untapped opportunities.

Acting on the long term

Present in the Great Lakes since the late 1960s, Switzerland has variously engaged in the region.
Between 1963 and 1994, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has executed numerous projects of development cooperation in Rwanda. Following the 1994 genocide, Switzerland provided humanitarian aid to Rwanda from 1994 to 1997.

From 1998, SDC resumed its development cooperation with Rwanda to gradually incorporate its activities in a regional program intended for Rwanda, Burundi and the South Kivu Province the Eastern DRC. In parallel, the funding of numerous humanitarian actions in post-conflict reconstruction continued in the region. Finally, Swiss diplomacy has worked since 1998 to support and facilitate the peace process in Burundi and in DR Congo that led respectively to the two Agreements of Arusha in 2000 and Pretoria in 2002.

The Intensification and diversification of Switzerland’s activities in the context of democratic transition required the definition of a framework for coordinated implementation of the instruments of development aid, humanitarian aid, peace policy and diplomacy. The first phase of this strategy (2009 - 2012) helped strengthen the coherence of Switzerland intervention and cope more effectively with the political, security, humanitarian and developmental complexity that characterized the region.

From 2013, following the decision of the Swiss Parliament to integrate Great Lakes region in the “priority” regions of the Swiss Cooperation, the strategy was renewed for the period of 2013-2016. The strategy aims at helping a population doubly affected by poverty and the consequences of more than a decade of armed conflict.

Four areas of intervention have been identified:

  • “Basic Services”: the commitment of the Swiss cooperation in this field remains focused on health (maternal and child health, sexual violence, water and sanitation). Alongside increased security, improving healthcare systems is one of the most effective ways of restoring citizens’ confidence in their governments.

  • "Democratic processes” to prevent and overcome crises and conflicts. This axis reflects the commitment of Switzerland to support the expansion of a democratic culture in the Great Lakes region. This involves providing support to institutions or mechanisms to prevent a resurgence of violence and the promotion of human rights. In parallel to support the process of political dialogue, dealing with the past as well as respect for human rights in Burundi, Switzerland implements programs in the field of media and land tenure.

  • “Employment and income”: new axis introduced since 2013. In line with the 2013 - 2016 message, the Swiss cooperation in the Great Lakes committed in this area basing on the important role that employment and income play in the stabilization process. It includes vocational training and agriculture.

  • "Protection of civilians” Switzerland contributes to the objectives of countries and humanitarian actors in terms of humanitarian access and protection of vulnerable groups (refugees, internally displaced and returned, host families, women, and children).

To coordinate its " Great Lakes Program”, SDC has three offices cooperation: Kigali (Rwanda, regional office), Bujumbura (Burundi, Program Office) and Bukavu (South Kivu program office) .
To date, the SDC runs 11 regional programs of development cooperation covering Rwanda, Burundi and South Kivu province of the DRC in the areas of decentralization, land tenure, health, media support, vocational training, agriculture, nutrition, production of construction materials suitable for the environment and in the field of water.

SDC supports, where relevant, existing governmental institutions by strengthening authorities’ organizational capacities and decentralized structures. Using a comprehensive and participatory development approach, SDC minds including all stakeholders in the planning, implementation and monitoring of its cooperation programs. SDC strives to engage into communication all levels of authority between themselves and with the citizen communities .

In the area of ​​decentralization, access to health care or land tenure, SDC seeks to encourage reflection conducted nationwide from the lessons learnt in the provinces or districts.In addition to the support provided to refugees, displaced and returnees with particular emphasis on women and children of the cyclical crises ravaging the region or natural disasters, the Swiss Humanitarian Aid strives to make the link between emergency programs and development cooperation currently implemented in the region.

Switzerland is convinced that the humanitarian and reconstruction assistance remain essential in the current regional context. Indeed, the political, social and economic stability, which is the basis for any lasting peace in the region can only be achieved if the instruments of development cooperation, promotion and consolidation of peace and humanitarian aid are implemented immediately, simultaneously and in a coordinated manner.

Thus many services and experts of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs support initiatives to promote peace in the areas of political mediation, human security and the promotion of human rights. For this purpose, two counselors of the Human Security Division of the Political Directorate of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs are based in the region (Bujumbura and Kinshasa). Switzerland embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Kinshasa (DRC) also contribute to dialogue with national authorities and stakeholders.

In general, the Swiss cooperation in the Great Lakes strives to anchor its interventions in a regional perspective. The interdependence of Rwanda, Burundi and the Kivu provinces in the DRC is evident on the geopolitical, historical and commercial aspects. Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are countries that were each labeled by deadly conflict and still show a situation of a very present poverty.

The geographical proximity of Rwanda, Burundi and the Kivu provinces and the dynamic of regular exchanges that exist on such a small territory suggests that the social and economic development of Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC can, and should, also operate across the region. While strengthening the regionalization of its portfolio in the Great Lakes, Switzerland does not apply a mechanical approach to regionalization efforts in order to take into account the specificities and degree of development of each country in the region.