«The SDC wants to remain involved in fragile states, even in difficult situations.»

Article, 30.09.2013

The 2013 Annual Development Cooperation Conference of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) took place in Lugano on 27 September under the banner «A fragile world – young people’s perspectives». Speaking after the conference, SDC Director-General Martin Dahinden assesses the results, explains the increased involvement of the SDC in fragile contexts, illustrates the challenges faced by staff in such regions, and gives an account of his own personal experiences in unstable countries and regions.

«The 2013 Annual Development Cooperation Conference brought much hope»: Martin Dahinden, Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

What is your personal assessment of the 2013 Annual Development Cooperation Conference?

I was most impressed by the number of people who made it all the way to Ticino – especially all the young people. I was also pleased to see so many people from Ticino present. The various speakers, from the young businesswoman from the United Arab Emirates to the former child soldier from South Sudan, conveyed the diversity and the complexity of fragile contexts.

The expression «fragile contexts» sounds negative on first hearing and it is not easy to pinpoint just what it means. Besides conveying the difficulties that are part and parcel of fragile contexts, the conference also brought much hope.

What effect do you hope the conference has had?

I hope that people got a glimpse of reality and what life is like in fragile contexts. I would also hope that people came away informed about what the SDC is doing in such contexts.

In accordance with its 2013-2016 international cooperation strategy, Switzerland is to step up its involvement in fragile contexts. What exactly is the SDC doing to increase its involvement?

In the last ten years, much has been achieved in the reduction of poverty. Nevertheless, not all countries have shown the same degree of progress: fragile contexts require even greater involvement. In future, the SDC will commit more resources than before to fragile states, in particular in North Africa, Myanmar and the Horn of Africa. It is important not to give up but rather to stay involved, even when the situation deteriorates.

The SDC is convinced that Switzerland can play an effective role in fragile countries. Switzerland is strongly embedded in the field, well connected and therefore well placed to work in fragile states and regions. It also has the advantage of not practising power politics.

What is so special about working in fragile contexts?

For the SDC, working in fragile countries and in conflict situations is not just a matter of working under difficult conditions, but rather it involves analysing and working on the causes, and changing existing structures. In other words, the whole context of a fragile state has to be taken on board so as to avoid being confined to working in niches. Working in a fragile context often involves using all the tools at our disposal: emergency and transitional aid as well as development cooperation. We have come to realise that our involvement must also include peace work, conflict prevention, and the strengthening of human rights.

What tools and strategies are typically deployed in fragile contexts?

In fragile contexts the SDC employs conflict-sensitive programme management – a specific working method for fragile contexts. Careful analysis of the political situation is important in fragile contexts. This involves analysing why fragility or conflict exists in any given country, why democracy and the rule of law do not function, and what must be done to ensure that human rights are respected and that economic and social development can take place.

Which areas would you say are at the forefront of any involvement in a fragile context?

There are any number, depending on the needs in the specific context: health services, education, water, infrastructure, the list goes on. Because the effects of fragility are felt differently in desert regions and in city slums, the needs are different.

Local work is important, as it enables trust to be built up between the population and the government. Reforms in the security sector and ensuring that people are paid a living wage are essential for state-building.

What skills does an SDC staff member need to be able to work in a fragile context?

Ability to cope under pressure, analytical skills, resistance to stress and experience in using all of the tools of international cooperation are important, as are the ability to think strategically, a feel for politics, an understanding of the situation in the host country and knowledge of risk management. Another requirement is the ability to obtain necessary information and also practical experience of work in unstable countries. Staff who have such a background and the corresponding experience become specialists and often continue to work in a fragile context over several years. They form the very backbone of the SDC.

An important personal trait is to have an inner spark and a deep sense of conviction: staff working in fragile contexts must be utterly convinced of what they are doing.

Which fragile contexts have you been to?

I have visited a number of fragile states and regions, including Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, various countries in Latin America, the Swat valley in Pakistan, slums in Latin America, the Great Lakes region, Haiti, and Egypt. Recently I was in restive provinces in the Tunisian heartland.

Can you recall experiences or observations from those visits that have remained with you and still give you pause for thought today?

Yes. I have been impressed by people who were living in desperate situations but who somehow still hadn’t given up hope. That is a good starting point for the SDC to do its work. With a little support, they are able to free themselves from their plight. Meeting people like that has moved me on more than one occasion. Many of them have experienced the most horrific events and yet the hope they have inside them is palpable.

To give one concrete example: in the Swat valley in Pakistan I met women who had lost everything to the conflict between Pakistan’s army and the Taliban. Floods had subsequently strewn the fertile soil of the valley with debris, robbing them of their livelihood. Despite it all, they had made a fresh start from next to nothing and rebuilt lives for themselves through projects like poultry farming. You do not forget people like that: even now, long after I met them, I sometimes wonder what has become of them.

I have also been impressed by the commitment of SDC staff and people from partner organisations. Their commitment is such that they are willing to forgo many things and shoulder a lot of responsibility. Anyone working in development in Afghanistan has to forget about a private life: the security measures there are so strict that there is no room for privacy.

Thank you, Mr Dahinden.


Personal details

Ambassador Martin Dahinden has been Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation since 2008. Fifty-seven years old, he has a doctorate in economics and was previously Director of Corporate Management at the FDFA (2004-2008) and Director of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (2000-2004). He was posted abroad to Paris, Nigeria, and New York.