Interview by Kristina Lanz, Andreas Missbach and Marco Fähndrich
Until the spring you were still in the National Council, since June you have been the new President of Helvetas. What do you find most stimulating about your new job?
Regula Rytz: The world is reeling from crises. I am deeply concerned about the social impacts, both here in Switzerland and, most importantly, in places where people have long had to struggle to survive or to keep a roof over their head. Helvetas brings concrete improvements. To me that is more crucial than ever.
Will you miss anything about day-to-day politics in the Federal Palace?
The work in the committees, as that is where you work with colleagues from other parties to find solutions. I will not miss the increasing polarisation, however. I am happy to be engaged in an area that involves cooperative work.
Are there countries in the Global South with which you have a personal connection?
As a child my husband had lived with his parents in Nepal, where they worked for the organisation that was the predecessor to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). Helvetas too was already there at the time. Personally, I have been able to visit Nepal three times and have seen the way development cooperation has evolved over the years. Previously, investment went mostly into infrastructure projects such as road building; today, much more is also being done to stimulate the local economy, through vocational training, for example.
Will Helvetas be more politically engaged in Switzerland in the future?
That task falls to Alliance Sud, and it is doing a marvellous job. Our priority remains working on the ground: we collaborate with SDC and local authorities, and also with local NGOs and the private sector. Besides, building popular awareness in Switzerland regarding global interconnections and calling for greater political coherence has always been a matter of course for us.
You are also on the Board of Trustees of the "Gobat pour la Paix" Foundation. What can we still learn today, in a time of war, from Albert Gobat, a forgotten Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former Government Councillor of the canton of Berne?
Before the First World War, Albert Gobat was instrumental in setting up the Inter-Parliamentary Union in order to bring together people from all countries and parties to prevent further escalation. This shows us that there are always people seeking a way to resolve conflicts peacefully and constructively. We need this today more than ever. And by the way, Gobat came from the Liberal party and can also be an example to today's FDP.The Liberals.
Do you mean to today's Foreign Minister and Federal President Ignazio Cassis? Listening to him, one gets the feeling that Switzerland is world-class…
That depends on which Switzerland we're talking about. I find the level of solidarity of the Swiss people remarkable when it comes to donations or families hosting Ukrainians displaced by the war. Politicians too have taken action – the Confederation, for instance, has endorsed the sanctions and has so far made more than 100 million francs available for humanitarian aid. Of course we could and must do more, especially in implementing the sanctions. The Lugano conference for the reconstruction of Ukraine was also a positive signal. But Switzerland should now take an active part in the European reconstruction platform.
Foreign Minister Cassis missed the international conference on the hunger crisis held in Berlin in June – is there a risk that, like the hunger or the climate crisis, other crises could be forgotten?
It is true that public attention is focused on the war in Ukraine, because of its global dimension and the fact that it concerns a nuclear power. But the dramatic nature of the hunger and climate crises cannot be overlooked. People here are becoming ever more aware that everything is interrelated. According to an ETH study, this is why the majority of the population favours expanding international cooperation. It brings stability and prospects for the future.
Citizens are showing solidarity, but not the Parliament, which wants to increase military spending substantially. The coming years could therefore witness cutbacks in international cooperation owing to the debt brake. What can civil society do about this?
There are major financial challenges stemming from the overlapping crises. Our task is to show that in this situation, development cooperation should be strengthened rather than weakened. If we fail to do enough against global poverty and hunger, the resulting costs will be enormous. Let us not forget that Switzerland has still not yet reached the 0.7% target.
Federal elections are set for next year. Could global issues play a role in them?
I hope and expect that the parties will address the global risks, as they concern us all. Everything that happens in the world today also has something to do with us. The corona pandemic has made this abundantly clear. Today we live in a highly networked world, where it is imperative to enhance equal opportunities worldwide.
Where do you currently see the greatest challenges to international cooperation?
The burgeoning number of violent conflicts and extreme weather events – we need look no further than Pakistan – is creating great demand for humanitarian aid. It saves lives and fulfils people's immediate and basic needs. At the same time, we can ill afford to neglect long-term development cooperation and peace building. Ultimately, these are the only means by which to create long-term prospects and fair opportunities for all, so that people can lift themselves out of poverty. Helvetas brings all these dimensions together. In refugee camps, for example, we provide not just emergency relief, but also educational opportunities.
Time and again we hear the criticism to the effect that the development cooperation work being done by so-called "white saviours" is perpetuating post-colonial patterns. Does this also apply to Switzerland?
The criticism applies less to Switzerland than to major international organisations. Switzerland's development cooperation work is more locally embedded. Helvetas too has always worked closely with local partners and the local people.
But couldn’t the important work being done with local organisations be better communicated?
Absolutely. But we are already very transparent about the impacts of our work and the key role of the local people in it.
What is your view of cooperation with the private sector? Is it more of an opportunity, or is it a risk?
This has always been one of the priorities of Swiss development cooperation. We too have had good experiences in many countries in terms of promoting small and medium-size enterprises and local value chains. The rules are the all-important factor: if all enterprises respect labour and environmental rights, injustices will also diminish. International corporations, in particular, have enormous leverage in this regard.
And what is the role of the political class in this?
For the Swiss public, it goes without saying that Swiss companies abroad should observe environmental standards and human rights. The discussion surrounding the responsible business initiative has borne this out. If the Federal Council takes its promises seriously, then Switzerland must now follow through in the realm of oversight and accountability.
The 2030 Agenda and its sustainable development goals have so far had little impact. Not much is known about them in Switzerland, and companies are exploiting them ever more frequently for "green washing". Should we perhaps concentrate more on implementing individual goals?
Broadly speaking, people feel more drawn to concrete issues. This is why it undoubtedly makes sense to highlight the individual goals. If the climate crisis, for example, is preventing other countries from producing enough food, that is also a problem for us here in Switzerland. The solution lies in dovetailing global and domestic food policy.
And how can Switzerland be persuaded to assume more responsibility in climate foreign policy?
We have to draw attention to the size of our footprint and the degree of influence exerted by the Swiss financial and commodity trading hub. Regrettably, many negative impacts can no longer be averted. Switzerland bears some responsibility here: the country must better assist the poorest countries with implementing resilience and adaptation measures. That will not be possible without additional sources of funding.
Are today's crises an opportunity for our work?
Paradoxically, yes. Raising the profile of the problems can lead to greater readiness to act. If supply chains are suddenly paralysed, if there are food shortages and energy bottlenecks, then there is only one way out – more cooperation, justice and fair opportunities. What is needed now is for us to highlight and elucidate the potential benefits of development cooperation.
But most people in Switzerland are more concerned about their own pension arrangements or rising health costs than about the situation in East Africa, for example…
Our quality of life is also dependent on how people are faring in the poorest countries. A world in which there are many losers is not a pleasant one. A world in which many people have nothing left to lose is a dangerous one. As a historian, I know that times of crisis are often marked by outbreaks of violence. This makes international solidarity all the more crucial. It is the prerequisite for peace and stability.
And what is your message for young people who have lost all hope?
I am a child of the cold war. When I was 20 years old, I spent every day anticipating the possibility of a nuclear war; that motivated me to get involved in politics. I know from experience that tenacious engagement pays off and that there are many positive developments and solutions.