On the evening of 16 November 2015, the Swiss Parliament Building was lit up with the colours of the Tricolour. It was a beautiful and important sign of solidarity with the victims of the Paris terror attacks. But also a monument to selective perception. What if the Federal Council and Parliament also showed solidarity even once with victims beyond our neighbouring European countries? The Parliament Building illuminated with the colours of the flag of Mali or Lebanon? Or that of Tuvalu, where climate change is already having disastrous consequences.
One indicator of Switzerland's attitude towards the less fortunate of this world is the level of its official development assistance. For a couple of weeks now, information has been posted on the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) website to the effect that the 0.5% GNI target set by the Parliament was reached in 2014 – and that the figure was even 0.51%. Yet this is no cause for celebration. Even the DFA preferred to remain silent about this per se good performance, deciding not to issue a press release.
The fact is that a considerable portion of Swiss development spending is really phantom aid. In 2014, some 17% of the expenditure that Switzerland imputes to bilateral public development assistance went towards helping asylum seekers in the country. In other donor countries, the share of the development budget that is spent on asylum seekers in the country averages 4 to 5%. If asylum spending, which is as good as no help to developing countries, is left out of the calculation, Switzerland's official development assistance for 2014 would be just 0.44% of national income.
There is also a second reason for the DFA's silence: Switzerland's development spending under the 2016 budget and the 2017-19 Stabilization Programme is already undergoing yet another massive cut. Over the next few years it should amount to a mere 0.47% of GNI, including support for asylum seekers. Not only does this run counter to the decision taken by the Parliament in 2008 that Switzerland must reach a development aid quota of 0.5% of GNI, but also to Switzerland's long-term interest in a stable and peaceful world order. There is still the faint hope that the newly elected Parliament will stand by the 0.5% mandate and oppose the paternalism of the Federal Council.
Admittedly, it will not prove very helpful that Norway, Sweden and Finland now plan to allocate a growing portion of their development budget to in-country support for asylum seekers in the years ahead. In the future, Norway could devote as much as 21% of its development aid budget to caring for asylum seekers within its own borders. Unlike Switzerland, however, Norway does not allocate just 0.5% but over 1% of its national income to official development assistance. Norway, Sweden and Finland could allocate as much as half their aid to asylum spending and would still be devoting a much greater share of their national income to long-term development cooperation than Switzerland at the best of times.