"The local people always know their needs best"

Patricia Danzi in the interview on September 8, 2020.
Article as analysis
Patricia Danzi took over as head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) on 1 May, succeeding an FDFA diplomat who had reached the end of his career. In an interview, she lays out some initial priorities.

Alliance Sud: Your previous position was Regional Director for Africa at the ICRC, you are now in charge of Switzerland's humanitarian aid and development cooperation. How do humanitarian aid and development cooperation relate to one another?

Patricia Danzi: This has changed and evolved significantly over recent decades. Conflicts now last longer, and the highly impactful topic of climate change is now part of the equation. Humanitarian aid can be compared to the fire brigade: quick action is needed to put out a fire. When conflicts drag on and remain unresolved however, reconstruction raises issues different from those posed, for example, by an earthquake or by disastrous flooding. We cannot use tank trucks for years on end in a camp with displaced people. Such a case calls for solutions in which humanitarian aid and development cooperation must work hand in hand. It is true that the tasks involved and the expertise required by humanitarian aid and development cooperation are different, but there is no doubt that the goals must always be aligned with one another.

Given your experience at the ICRC, some fear that you may care much more about humanitarian aid than long-term bilateral development cooperation…

That will have to be judged later on I am afraid (laughs). But more seriously, my years of experience with people on the ground have familiarised me with the connection between short-term emergency aid and long-term development work. The priorities of people in an immediate emergency can quickly shift towards existential, longer term problems such as education or employment. My work so far has shown me the limits that humanitarian aid invariably runs into and I have sought a new challenge that goes beyond those limits.

When a fragile country like Burkina Faso, where Swiss development cooperation has had years-long success, finds itself facing ever more internal violence and displacements, when schools and health facilities have to be closed for reasons of security, then regrettably, humanitarian aid again becomes necessary, sometimes for the very purpose of safeguarding the accomplishments of development cooperation. At all events the people must always be taken on board in our work, as they know best by far just what their short and longer term needs are.

The quality of humanitarian aid is measured by its rapid reaction capability in a crisis. Is there an equally pithy and accurate characterisation of development cooperation?

Good development cooperation is long-term oriented, as only in that way can it deploy its effects. It achieves the hoped-for outcomes perhaps in a less spectacular but in a sustainable manner. The SDC has now been present for many decades in some countries where, according to what I'm told by Swiss ambassadors, it is reputed to be a transparent and reliable partner.

How can one guard against the danger of a development agency like the SDC assuming a role that properly belongs to the States concerned?

Good governance should always be encouraged everywhere. Civil society plays a crucial role in this, especially young people, who know how to make use of the digital possibilities, of social media in quite different ways. It does require a certain measure of freedom if the population itself is to exercise a control function. But when people know, for example, that Switzerland has pledged two million for the building of a hospital and there is no construction in progress, then they will defend themselves. That is different today from just 20 years ago. Transparency is a decisive factor in this regard as well.

The measurable impacts of development cooperation have become ever more important in recent years. Donors as well as taxpayers want to know what is being achieved with their money.

That is true, today we have to provide proof not just of how many mosquito nets were distributed, but also of the extent to which they have helped curb the spread of malaria, ideally with a detailed breakdown by region, age group and gender. I understand this wish for accountability about our work. It is also crucial for us to analyse situations carefully before launching action. At the same time, however, it is difficult to gauge what problems have not risen thanks to our work, for example, as a result of prevention. When you invest in good governance or in civil society participation in decision-making processes, the outcome is hard to measure.

So even things that are not directly measurable can be highly relevant?

Yes, this is why it is so crucial to use concrete examples to explain the significance of building networks, for example. Of course we can provide proof if we have trained this or that many people for example, who are playing important roles in a community. The outcome of efforts to promote the rule of law in a country however — which like good governance is another of our principal causes — is harder to measure and requires us to work consistently at it and to explain it appropriately to our public. And in my experience, that message is also being fully understood.

The Parliament has now concluded its deliberations on the new dispatch regarding international cooperation for the next four years. What did you think of the debate?

The corona crisis has posed no threat to international cooperation, our 2020 budget was even slightly increased. I am gratified by the very clear recognition that at this difficult time, the systems in place should be strengthened rather than weakened through savings measures. In terms of content, the discussions in the Parliament were engaging, which for me was a good sign that parliamentarians are really keen to understand what is at stake.

The needs have increased markedly as a result of the corona crisis. Isn't it high time that Switzerland increased its development spending to the international ODA target of 0.7 percent of gross national income?

Of course I would personally welcome it if we had more money for our work. But I also find a rigid rate somewhat problematic — especially at this time — for continuous adjustments stemming from the changing economic cycle would lead to fluctuations in the real budget available. In Great Britain for example, this is leading to major planning uncertainties vis-a-vis partner countries. In Switzerland we rely on more or less stable contributions for development cooperation. I prefer to base planning on fixed amounts of money rather than percentages.

How will the pandemic influence or alter the work of the SDC?

As far as possible we want to remain present in the places where we are now engaged. This is so, not least of all because other countries with large budgets are withdrawing on account of the pandemic. That will place higher expectations on us. We assume that precisely those countries in which a middle class has emerged in recent years will suffer major setbacks from the pandemic. Newly created jobs are again disappearing, and many people are being thrown back into the vulnerable informal sector. We will certainly not have less work, quite the contrary. We wish to be as close as possible to the people affected by the crisis. Being in an office in Bamako, Bishkek or Addis Ababa is not enough to get to know people's real needs.

Alliance Sud is critical of plans to expand cooperation with the private sector under the new dispatch on international cooperation. Can you say any more at this time about the strategy to be followed?

That is a topic of great interest and concern to me, and I can sense growing interest within the SDC as well. We are working flat out to determine precisely what this cooperation with the private sector should look like in concrete terms. At the heart of it is the impact we wish to have. How can public and private sector resources be combined so as to ensure a clear benefit for the people on the ground? How can we persuade large as well as medium-sized companies – including companies in the South — to create jobs in countries where the economic environment is not the most conducive? And how can this be done without compromising existing local structures? Over the summer we prepared guidelines that take these risks seriously into account and lay out the conditions under which we could envisage cooperation with the private sector. Or not. These documents are now in the hands of the Head of the Department, and we will be reporting by the end of the year on how things will move forward in this regard.

Big corporations are not exactly famous for the transparency you are demanding…

It is no secret that the private sector is driven primarily by the profit motive. If we work with the private sector, then it must be with the shared goal of promoting sustainable development. How can we ensure that some demographics do not fall through the net? These are not easy discussions; I do however have the impression that the private sector is now fully prepared to consider social and environmental factors in a long-term perspective.

Do you personally understand the fear that this strategy could mean neglecting the needs of the poorest social sectors or efforts to strengthen civil society in the South?

Yes, I can understand these misgivings. But I also know the earnest wish of poor countries and of the most vulnerable population segments for secure jobs. And these can hardly be created without private sector involvement, including that of its financially powerful branches. Beyond this, if we are able through dialogue or partnership with the private sector to help improve social or environmental standards and business practices, then something will have been gained. Without this dialogue we would be missing an opportunity to be able to make a real difference.

More development cooperation funds are set to go towards international climate funding – although the Paris Climate Agreement calls for new and additional funds. An Alliance Sud study shows that so far climate funding has gone predominantly to middle income countries. Isn't this steadily reducing the funds available for poverty reduction?

It would surely be no bad thing if we had additional funds for climate funding. The fact is that with our funds we are often able to achieve the greatest climate protection impacts in middle income countries, especially where in many instances there is great inequality. We must do more however to ensure that in such places we are also reaching those worst affected by climate change – most often the poorest.

It is perfectly clear to me how dramatically things have changed in such a short time owing to global warming. Last year I met in Somalia with displaced cattle farmers who were growing grain in the area around a water well, using seeds they had been given for the purpose. But they were longing to have goats and camels again, even being aware that they would perhaps survive for just another five years at best. When entire population groups must reshape their lifestyles, this represents an enormous challenge for them — as well as for us and our work.

How do you personally cope with these virtually impossible tasks?

Modesty and humility are paramount. We have expertise but no ready-made solutions – not the SDC, not any other development agency. This further underscores the urgency of multilateral cooperation to pave the way for a joint and multi-perspective approach to the major problems at hand and for elaborating a shared vision. There are no more easy solutions. What is important for me is always to talk with the affected people on the ground about their needs.

Alliance Sud demands more coherence from Swiss policymakers in resolving these major problems. And this encompasses not just development policy, but for example also fiscal and trade policy. How do you see this?

There is still work to be done in this realm, as shown by consultations on the international cooperation strategy. I think that one of the most important tasks of civil society is to draw attention to these linkages. The SDC's primary task is to ensure the coherence of our own strategy as well as to keep the crucial topic of policy coherence constantly alive in our dialogue.

Patricia Danzi

Patricia Danzi (51) is the daughter of a Swiss mother and Nigerian father and grew up in the Canton of Zug. She studied geography as well as agricultural and environmental sciences and in 1996 began working at the ICRC, where she was Regional Director for Africa for the past five years.