Shortly before the spring session, it did come after all – the Federal Council’s love letter to non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In its reply rejecting a motion tabled by National Councillor Hans-Peter Portmann (FDP.The Liberals) aimed at prohibiting partnerships between the Confederation and politically engaged development organisations, the Federal Council wrote the following: “Swiss NGOs really make a vital contribution to the implementation of international cooperation (IC).” And that: “A strong and multifaceted civil society is part and parcel of Switzerland’s political culture.” At the same time, the Council underscored the various advantages of cooperation with NGOs: long-term engagement, expertise, a broad basis of support and trust among the general public, networking, the promotion of volunteer work, and awareness-raising in favour of sustainable development.
Is it all just lip service? The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs has put limits only on the important task of awareness-raising for the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As of this year, programme contributions from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) may no longer be used for education and awareness-raising in Switzerland. This is incomprehensible because, in addition to the OECD Development Assistance Committee, countless eminent persons and organisations have been warning for years of the still insufficient public understanding in Switzerland for global interconnections and developmental challenges. For that reason too, NGOs will continue to invest in the work of education and awareness-raising, though they will now have to do so without the support of the Confederation.
Irrespective of the political attacks on NGOs in the Parliament, which will be one of the main themes of this issue, we can be confident of one thing: through the Responsible Business Initiative, Swiss civil society has amply demonstrated the level of the public impact of which it is capable. The public campaign for this initiative was made possible not by government funding but by dint of the support of thousands of committed and well-informed volunteers all across Switzerland.
We should be mindful of this as we go forward, for example when it comes to the struggle for greater climate protection, or fair immunisation policies. Civil society can accomplish much by working together, even if it often requires several attempts. The late introduction of the voting right for women in Switzerland 50 years ago is one such example. Today more than ever, we need a strong civil society – for the sake of effective development cooperation, for pro-development rules and regulations in the world economy, and for a vibrant democracy.