India and Covid-19: "It feels good to be able to help in an uncomplicated way!"

60 years of the SDC – Taking planned action, responding swiftly and being able count on a committed team: Director Patricia Danzi highlights advantages of Switzerland's international cooperation that she can rely on, shifts in approach in recent decades and what is being done to adapt for the future. Seven questions for the SDC's Director on this landmark anniversary.

Two children look out of the sliding window of a booth – one with a mask, one without.

Rapid assistance for India in the Covid-19 pandemic: a mask and a ventilator can make the difference between life and death. © Keystone

Ms Danzi, you've been Director of the SDC for almost a year now. What have you achieved and which aspects please you most?

Being able to support our partners in a rapid and straightforward way during the Covid-19 crisis. The fact we were able to rely on the solidarity and trust of the Swiss people and received more funding for Swiss development cooperation. I was also pleased the SDC continued to operate on the ground in the countries during this challenging period.

Within a very short time, we adapted and reprogrammed hundreds of local SDC projects to meet Covid-19 related needs. Swiftly and without unnecessary red tape, the Federal Council made available CHF 400 million to alleviate the impact of the pandemic and later pushed this through Parliament as a supplementary credit – in addition to the CHF 11.2 billion approved by Parliament as part of the International Cooperation Strategy. This is not a given, especially in what is also an economically challenging climate for Switzerland. It boosts Switzerland's image and reputation as a partner whose development cooperation can be relied upon, who can offer rapid, unbureaucratic support also in difficult times.

Portrait  Patricia Danzi
Patricia Danzi, Director of the SDC © Keystone

I've heard evidence of this respect from many people in SDC partner countries. Throughout Covid-19, a lot of meetings have been held on Skype or other online platforms – you don't always know where people are physically located. So our partners very much appreciated the fact that SDC staff were also physically present during the pandemic to give moral support to the people in our partner countries. 

I joined a hotbed of highly-motivated employees!

This also shows the great commitment of SDC staff. When I took up my post, I joined a hotbed of motivated, proactively-minded employees. When we asked them in a survey how the IC Strategy 2021–24 could be implemented most effectively, we received hundreds of ideas. I was delighted! We're taking the suggestions and comments very seriously – we are drawing on these action areas to adapt to the new challenges and ensure that we will remain a relevant development organisation over the next 60 years.

SDC Director Patricia Danzi with FDFA colleagues, members of the Youth Advisory Board of the Swiss embassy and Barbara Dätwyler Scheuer, Director of Cooperation at the embassy.
Committed staff: SDC Director Patricia Danzi surrounded by FDFA colleagues, members of the Youth Advisory Board of the Swiss embassy and Barbara Dätwyler Scheuer, Director of Cooperation at the embassy. © Swiss Embassy Sarajevo

I'd like to pick up on a point you touched on – Covid-19 also presented huge challenges for the SDC last year. What has the SDC achieved in this respect?

Switzerland has demonstrated it can provide targeted support with smaller issues on the ground, while also consistently making an impact through 'major leverage' in cooperation with other countries. Switzerland – in collaboration with the Swiss private sector – provided 30,000 Covid-19 test kits, thermometers and protective equipment items for the central government and the provinces in Nepal, a country with a very poor healthcare system. At multilateral level, it worked with ACTA – an alliance of countries, private companies and associations – to ensure that countries such as Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Jordan rapidly obtained access to Covid-19 vaccines and ultimately succeeded in negotiating a price per Covid-19 test of a tenth of the original price.  This is extremely encouraging and shows that even global issues can be tackled rapidly when various actors join forces.

We sometimes don't fully realise – Switzerland has a good reputation.

Thanks to ACTA and the COVAX and COVAX Facility initiatives launched by the World Health Organization (WHO), scientific achievements can be made accessible to all countries. In concrete terms, thanks to this initiative, everyone – regardless of their purchasing power – has access to diagnostics, medical treatment and vaccinations. ACTA is 10 months old. The vaccine has been around for five months. What ACTA has achieved in this short time is huge. And Switzerland can be proud to have played its part. It was able to do this because it has made a substantial financial contribution and thus has a seat on decision-making bodies. We sometimes don't fully realise – Switzerland has a good reputation, it can provide a lot of funding and solid expertise quickly. People listen to us. So together with others, we can quickly reach millions of people. This is a huge potential to tackle the big problems on planet Earth! This motivates me for the future work of the SDC!

Ms Danzi, you succeeded in rapidly providing Nepal with affordable vaccines by working together with the Swiss private sector, for example. The call for "greater cooperation with the private sector" was nevertheless met with scepticism during the consultation procedure on the International Cooperation Strategy 2021–24.

I can understand the reservations on which this criticism was based. There were fears that development aid money would go to major corporations which would invest in our partner countries without taking social and economic sustainability into account. Large companies have made mistakes in the past but are now also willing to learn from them. The SDC has now adopted guidelines and set them out in a handbook to provide a framework for cooperation with the private sector. This ensures clarity. 

When we ask people what they need most urgently, they say a job.

But we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. When we ask people in our partner countries what they need most urgently, they say a job. Employment puts them in a position to feed their families, provide schooling for their children, invest money in their projects and pay for their healthcare, and gives them the freedom to do the things they want to. The SDC also wishes to meet the needs of local people.

An orange referendum poster for the 'Responsible Business Initiative' on an old mountain barn made of dark wood.
No government funding for information campaigns in Switzerland: this clarifying provision after the referendum on the 'Responsible Business Initiative' on 29 November 2020 sparked controversy. © Keystone

You got the International Cooperation Strategy 2021–24 and the new contributions for that period through Parliament despite Covid-19. It has long been the case that such state funding cannot be used for lobbying and campaigning purposes. The clarifying provision that NGOs can no longer use funding from programme contributions for information campaigns in Switzerland was nevertheless met with criticism.

Separating lobbying from information activities is not always straightforward. We now have greater clarity in this respect. The NGOs that are granted SDC programme contributions receive partial funding for around a third for their international programmes – they have always had to find the rest themselves. The total contribution remains untouched, but the NGOs must meet the cost of awareness-raising measures independently without federal funding.

A contribution of one third is made to international programmes – the NGOs have always had to find the rest themselves.

Let's come back to the International Cooperation Strategy adopted by Parliament last year. How did you achieve that? And what changes compared to the past do you consider particularly important?

Preparation for the 2021–24 strategy has been going on for some time – well before my arrival. A consultation procedure also took place to involve the wider public in the debate at an early stage. That was extremely beneficial.

A benchmark figure for the climate of around CHF 400 million has been earmarked for the first time in the International Cooperation Strategy and its financial implementation. That equates to an increase of 25% compared to the previous strategy period.  As well as conflict and violence, climate change is also increasingly a factor in people being displaced from their homeland.

Migration remains a key priority. Some people feared we would only cooperate with countries which had concluded a readmission agreement for migrants with Switzerland. That's clearly not the case.

Switzerland wishes to work together with its partner countries to mitigate the causes of displacement and migration and to enable people to lead a dignified life in their own countries. This also means, for example, promoting compliance with international law and supporting partner organisations working to ensure better integration of (internally) displaced people. Millions of people flee to neighbouring countries, such as Kenya, Sudan, Jordan or Lebanon, and a small number make it to the Schengen Area.

From 'development aid' to 'international cooperation': looking back at the SDC's 60-year history reveals how the agency has shifted from simply providing technical aid towards close involvement of partners on the ground – a trend that has also been influenced by major events on the world political stage – keywords End of the Second World War, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 9/11 terror attack in 2001. Which 'change of era' and the SDC's response to it are you most impressed by?

The developments related to the new understanding of cooperation after the fall of the Berlin Wall were extremely significant.

The SDC has constantly adapted to global events and changing landscapes and has to reflect on the following questions: "Are we adopting the right approach? Are we implementing it properly? Are we focusing on the right places? Are we still well positioned and are our networking activities adequate?" The shift from providing technical aid – such as support with bridge-building in Nepal to the foundation of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) – towards a completely new understanding of cooperation with our partner countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the former Eastern Bloc was absolutely momentous. Some countries had a completely different understanding of cooperation and were accustomed to different planning horizons and objectives, had a high standard of education and wanted to get involved.

9/11 shook the world to its core and the ramifications will be felt for a long time to come. Conflicts also last longer – sometimes for several decades – which has a huge impact on how humanitarian aid, development cooperation and peacebuilding have to work together to achieve a long-term impact. Today there are also issues such as the pandemic, migratory flows and climate change to contend with.

Ms Danzi, finally let's reflect on the future: what key principles does the SDC need to adopt to ensure it continues to receive public support and carries on successfully making an impact in future?

There are five key principles. Constantly adapting to new requirements and the geopolitical situation, developing stronger networks, remaining agile, even more effective impact assessment and even greater inclusion of our partners' own contributions. We must also improve our communications, highlight the SDC's achievements and hold debates on development cooperation.

Thank you very much for the interview Ms Danzi.

Focal points of the cooperation

The SDC is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, we are looking at various aspects of international cooperation – including how it developed historically. International cooperation aims to alleviate need and poverty worldwide, to foster respect for human rights, to promote democracy and to protect the environment. The following thematic priorities were set for the period 2021–24:

  • Creating decent jobs locally
  • Continuing to combat climate change
  • Reducing the causes of displacement and irregular migration
  • Working to ensure the rule of law

A total of CHF 11.25 billion has been earmarked for 2021–24 as part of financial planning. The International Cooperation Strategy is aligned with the Swiss Confederation's Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23.

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