The most common criticism of development cooperation – also shared by Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics Angus Deaton – can be heard not just at pub tables but also in Parliament: development cooperation allows governments to renege on their duty to provide decent health and education systems. But the fact is that this criticism is not at all applicable to Swiss development cooperation. For only in exceptional cases does Switzerland accord direct budget support to governments in developing countries. And that is how it should be.
Bilateral development cooperation projects focus on strengthening civil society, with the aim of empowering people living in poverty and injustice to demand that their governments fulfil the obligations incumbent on them. Rather than relieving governments of their responsibility, this approach has the opposite effect in that governments come under closer scrutiny by their own people.
Priorities rather than universality
One reproach levelled at Switzerland's development policy, including by the OECD Development Assistance Committee in a 2013 Peer Review, is the dispersal of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) across (too) many countries. Former Federal Councillor and Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter countered this with his belief in the «universality» of Swiss development cooperation. Alliance Sud believes that the greater a country's geographical dispersion through its involvement in various activities, the greater the risk that development cooperation could be misused for diplomatic purposes. Also, concentrating resources on fewer countries would strengthen and enhance the effectiveness of SDC as a player in the countries concerned. This greater concentration would have to be consistently oriented toward the fundamental mission of Swiss development cooperation work. In other words, it should focus on the poorest countries and withdraw from middle-income countries.
The question should also be posed as to how many other donor countries are already active at a particular location; for as a player, Switzerland should be among the major donors and hence have greater political weight. It is also very important to determine whether a particular context allows for developmental progress and for cooperation with civil society. Authoritarian regimes such as that of Eritrea leave hardly any leeway in this regard. Where such leeway is too limited, Switzerland should not become involved.
Prevention is cheaper than emergency aid in a crisis
Humanitarian aid has largely been spared in the various cost-cutting rounds in Parliament over recent years. In cases of sudden crises, whether a tsunami or an earthquake, the situation of need can be seen via all channels, and solidarity is accordingly appreciable.
Outwardly, long-term development cooperation is unspectacular and therefore requires a greater effort of persuasion in Parliament and in public; this is so despite the fact that its prophylactic value is beyond doubt. Reinforcing health care in developing countries can effectively avoid outbreaks of pandemics and in that way avert financial costs as well as human suffering. Ensuring food security for infants for example, is much less costly than dealing with malnutrition later on.
For some time now, development cooperation has also come to be viewed as a means of helping to stem the rise of violent extremism. Development cooperation undoubtedly contributes to this by promoting the fair distribution of resources, functioning institutions, political participation and the rule of law. It cannot however guarantee that there will be no further outbreaks of violence (see also Alliance Sud News No. 90).
Development cooperation to combat (the causes of) refugee movements?
Since 2016, Parliament has required that Swiss development cooperation also be aligned with Switzerland's migration policy interests. For certain parties this means first and foremost stopping refugee movements into Europe and Switzerland. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is tantamount to using development cooperation to combat flight per se rather than its causes. Alliance Sud views this approach as problematic in that if development cooperation is to serve to stem migration, it would have to be re-attuned every few years as crises and disasters evolve. No longer would it be possible to mount long-term projects.
Development cooperation can surely play a role in mitigating the factors that trigger refugee movements by creating prospects locally, by promoting democracy and the rule of law and in so doing expand the policy space available to local civil society. It can nevertheless provide no guarantee that there will be no further refugees or migration.
The reasons underlying refugee movements and migration are many and varied. Besides genuine development cooperation, another key contributor to sustainable development is the design of the tax, trade and climate policies of industrialized countries. Specifically, the following action should be taken:
- Prohibiting illicit financial flows. This is one key prerequisite for ensuring that developing countries have sufficient resources of their own to provide their people with the basic services they expect.
- Cutting agricultural subsidies under equitable trade agreements that provide access to the markets of industrialized countries and protect existing markets in developing countries.
- Effective action against climate change and financial support for developing countries in adapting to its consequences.
Only when these policy fields are coordinated and attuned to one another can there be talk of policy coherence. This is far from being the case at present.
Development cooperation in Switzerland's constitution and legislation
The basic mission of development cooperation derives from the Swiss Federal Constitution. It clearly mandates the Confederation to play its part «in alleviating need and poverty in the world, while promoting respect for human rights and democracy, and contributing to the peaceful coexistence of peoples and the conservation of natural resources.»
The Swiss Federal Act on International Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid further specifies that development cooperation must be organized such that it takes account of the situation in the partner country and the needs of the people for whom it is intended. Besides, it should provide support primarily for the poorest developing countries, regions and population groups.