“It’s by talking with people from the local population that you see how effective development cooperation is“

Press releases, 29.09.2014

Martin Dahinden served as head of the SDC from 2008 to 2014. At the end of September 2014, he leaves Switzerland to become the country’s new ambassador in Washington. In this interview, Martin Dahinden looks back on his years with the SDC, recalls personal highlights, talks about the changes in Swiss development cooperation over the years, and names future challenges.

Mr Dahinden, what is your assessment as you look back on your tenure as Director-General of the SDC?

There are two assessments, I would say, one personal and one professional. At the personal level, the past six and a half years have been a fascinating time for me. I had the opportunity to go to places and meet people that, under normal circumstances, I would never have come into contact with – in the Great Lakes Region, for example, Afghanistan, the slums of Latin America, or Haiti shortly after the earthquake. I got to know what daily life is like for people living in poverty and need. These encounters with other cultures and other ways of life were, for me personally, a very enriching experience.

Another thing that fascinated me, and which I will not forget, is the commitment of the SDC staff. They live and work in conditions that are, at times, both difficult and dangerous.

What comes to mind when you look back on these past years from a professional perspective?

At the professional level, what strikes me is the radical change of direction that took place in development cooperation and humanitarian aid, and in the environment surrounding both of those domains. When I took office, it was just at the time of the economic and financial crisis, which had major effects on international relations. Issues such as food insecurity, migration, water and resource scarcity, all took on a new meaning. The people involved in Swiss development cooperation began to reflect anew on the future direction that Switzerland’s efforts should take.

Two major conclusions emerged. First, it became clear that Switzerland had to strengthen its involvement in fragile contexts and in contexts marked by conflict, since scarcely any progress had been made there in the fight against poverty. Secondly, there was an effort to link development cooperation with the search for responses to global challenges, such as climate change, for example. This was the idea behind the global programmes that were launched in 2008. It had become clear that it would be possible to overcome worldwide challenges only by moving beyond the narrow framework of local programmes and projects.

Are there any achievements by Switzerland’s development cooperation during your time in office that give you particular satisfaction?

There are two accomplishments that I am especially pleased with. One is the high marks the SDC received from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the OECD, in its 2013 report on Switzerland. With that, the OECD confirmed that the SDC is doing excellent work as a development agency.

The second thing is the decision by parliament to increase public funding for development assistance to 0.5% of the gross national income. Never in the history of Swiss development cooperation has the SDC had this level of resources at its disposal. Even more important than that, however, is the expression of parliament’s confidence in the SDC. The funding is sorely needed, given the enormity of the suffering and the crises we need to deal with.

I am also very satisfied that Switzerland succeeded in getting programmes set up so quickly in North Africa after the Arab Spring. Worth mentioning, as well, are Switzerland’s active efforts following the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. And finally, there is the fact that Switzerland was able in the past few years to play a major role in discussions at the UN on a reorientation of development cooperation strategies.

What is it that distinguishes Swiss development cooperation, what is its profile?

Switzerland is not pursuing any geostrategic interests and has no hidden agenda. We are not trying to stabilise our regime or gain any points in a game of power politics. The people in the countries where we work are aware of this. This is something that came across clearly in conversations with people from the local populations – in talking with an imam in the Swat Valley, for example, in northern Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan.

Reducing poverty, alleviating suffering, and easing the transition to democratic societies governed by the rule of law: these are Switzerland’s primary interests. In trying to achieve these objectives it takes an approach based on “helping people to help themselves“.

What are the qualities and the priorities Switzerland brings with it as a partner on the ground?

Swiss development cooperation is people-oriented. It seeks to include both Swiss and local relief agencies, along with non-governmental organisations. On the ground, these might be farmers’ cooperatives, for example, or local women’s groups. Switzerland commits itself to working in countries over periods of several years, and builds long-term partnerships. It is perceived as a reliable partner. Another characteristic is the priorities it sets, that is, water issues, vocational training, health, and rural development. These are areas where Switzerland is particularly well-qualified, has experience, and can contribute a great deal.

What was the state of Swiss development cooperation when you took office in 2008, and what is its present state? What were the biggest changes?

When I started as SDC director in 2008, Switzerland’s development cooperation was in good, solid shape with its projects. There then came a shift in emphasis towards fragile contexts and global challenges. One major change was that we made more of an effort to share our experience in the field with international organisations or in discussions with other governments. The practical work was linked to work in the political arena. The purpose was to gain more leverage. In addition, this makes it possible for Switzerland to be well-armed when it takes part in international discussions.

An example: in West Africa, Switzerland has gathered experience in various countries in the domain of responsible agricultural investment. That knowledge proved useful when working with the African Union and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation on the drafting of guidelines.

Another major step was the drafting of a comprehensive strategy in 2013, with the same shared objectives for the development cooperation activities of the SDC and the SECO, for humanitarian aid, and for our cooperation with Eastern Europe. Work in these areas had been running along parallel lines since the 1960s. The Swiss parliament and the OECD have both welcomed the change.

As part of your job, you have done a great deal of travelling since 2008. Were there any situations where you were made particularly aware of the effectiveness of Switzerland’s development cooperation?

The effectiveness of Switzerland’s efforts was discernible in all of my project visits, but, certainly, in some places more clearly than others. Health and water projects show tangible results quite quickly. In Moldavia, which was one of the places I visited, some villages now had running water for the first time ever, thanks to the SDC water programmes. Such changes have immediate effects; it was something the people talked to me about. The effectiveness of what we do was noticeable also in other places. In Nicaragua I saw how the introduction of land registers helped ensure that farmers were not arbitrarily dispossessed of their land.

It’s by talking with the local people that you see how effective development cooperation is. On my travels, and when visiting projects, I always put a high value on informal exchanges – if possible, before the official meetings – with people from the local communities. I wanted to get an idea of whether the projects were succeeding – by helping to put people in a position to earn a living, for example. Only after that did I then travel to the capitals, to meet with ministers or the representatives of other donor countries. The conversations with the local people are something I will always remember fondly. That was one of the things I most looked forward to on my travels.

In your view, what are the main challenges, issues and objectives that Switzerland’s development cooperation will have to take on in the coming years?

One major challenge will be giving the SDC programmes a new orientation. In the past, they were very much focussed on alleviating suffering and poverty. It is important that, in the future, attention is paid to all three pillars of sustainability, that is, also to economic and environmental questions. These changes are taking place also at the international level. In the future, the UN’s development agenda will be aimed not only at fighting poverty, but also at promoting sustainability.

I can illustrate what this new orientation means with an example: if the objective is to help fisherman increase their income, then one thing that has to be done is to create a market for fish, so that they will be able to sell their products. But there are also environmental issues to be considered, such as preventing overfishing, for example. The focus has to be on providing people with a sustainable income.

Another matter of concern is the current instability in the eastern and southern Mediterranean. At the moment, Switzerland is providing humanitarian aid in those regions. In the coming years it will have to think about how it can contribute to more long-term stability there. The direction to be taken will become clear over time. There is a Spanish saying, “the road is made by walking“. The same applies to Switzerland’s development cooperation in those regions.