"Equality and social justice belong together"

Marina Carobbio
Political article
Switzerland's highest ranking woman visited Rwanda on the 25th anniversary of that country’s genocide, then Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries. The President of the National Council Marina Carobbio was interviewed by Alliance Sud.

Alliance Sud: What personal impressions did you take away from this trip to Africa?

Marina Carobbio: It was a very intense and demanding trip. The commemoration of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a very powerful moment. I was deeply touched to hear people who had themselves survived the genocide. It is necessary to commemorate it so that such a thing can never happen again. Even so, there are still many places that continue to witness unacceptable attacks on people and human rights. The trip has strongly motivated me to continue my engagement in favour of development cooperation.

The choice of Rwanda and Mozambique was surely no chance matter.

Of course not. I was interested in observing the role of women in Swiss development projects, and I specifically wanted to see healthcare-related projects. Broadly speaking, we know little about Africa, and politicians should find out more about what Switzerland is doing and what they themselves can learn from this cooperation. For development is never a one-way street. During my visit the focus was on the role of the Federal Government. Our country is regarded as a model of good governance and recognized as a reliable partner.

Switzerland has three foreign policy tools – development assistance, peace and human rights promotion as well as humanitarian aid. What did you learn in this regard during your trip?

We visited water-supply and health projects in both countries, as well as others offering support to victims of sexual violence. We also saw public-private partnership (PPP) projects and were able to observe the important role being played by Switzerland in peace promotion through dialogue and civil society participation. All this has strengthened my belief that if Switzerland continues this work it will garner even greater recognition as an important player on the international stage. It would be a mistake to give up certain forms of cooperation, let alone end our work. It is important for developing countries, but also for Switzerland.

Mozambique is a priority country under Switzerland’s international cooperation programmes. After the flooding, numerous NGOs urged Credit Suisse to forgive debts of $1 billion owed by Mozambique. In 2016, the country was plunged into a severe crisis by toxic loans. It is indeed a paradox that on the one hand is Switzerland's official development assistance, and on the other, a Swiss bank that plunges the country into an unprecedented crisis…

The problem is that as a private company, the bank is contributing very little to clearing up this matter. This takes us directly to the topic of the Responsible Business Initiative. Although the popular request does not directly concern the banks, the issue of due diligence is of paramount importance. At official meetings in Mozambique we also discussed the importance of fighting corruption. In Rwanda I was able to observe the sensitiveness of the issue of commodities entering the country from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That too is another reminder of our own responsibility, as commodities are also making their way further afield from Rwanda and into our country.

Switzerland wants to do good business while being recognized for its humanitarian tradition. What is your experience of this balancing act as a politician?

Economic success is of course a fundamental issue, but it ought not to be considered separately from our policies of peace promotion, environmental protection and human rights. It is precisely this contradiction that is being addressed by the Responsible Business Initiative.

Opponents of the Initiative maintain that while the cause is indeed legitimate, it would suffice for companies to comply voluntarily with human rights and environmental standards…

In Switzerland too we have observed in many fields that voluntary standards are not enough in the absence of rules. Just take the principle of equal pay for equal work for men and women!
In the same way that Switzerland enjoys a good reputation as a mediator in conflict situations, we can also assume an exemplary role in responsible entrepreneurship.

Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis is keen to align official development assistance more with Switzerland's own interests. Greater weight is also to be given to migration-related aspects. Is this not exploiting development cooperation?

Cooperation ought not to be tied to purely domestic goals. It is clear to me that good development policies also earn us respect internationally, and this can only be beneficial to Switzerland. If on the other hand we tie development cooperation to the goal of less immigration to Switzerland, we would be compromising the original and primary goals of cooperation.
We live in a stable country where people are doing well. Against the backdrop of this privileged situation, the discourse of development cooperation must clearly be one of solidarity. Switzerland has thrived on this value – that of solidarity – and we must not call it into question today.

Does the general public still embrace and support international cooperation?

It is admittedly less well known today than in the 1980s and 1990s, but there are still many young people becoming involved abroad. Today there is less media coverage of development cooperation. We do indeed quickly learn of disasters that have occurred in distant places, we discuss a hurricane for about two days, then move on to another humanitarian crisis. But we are clearly not connecting up these events sufficiently. Mozambique was a case in point: the hurricane itself is a natural disaster, but it has affected a country that is already very poor anyway and suffering severely from climate change.

Many educated people in the global South view "development aid" from the North as a thinly disguised form of neo-colonialism. A lot has happened over the past 30 years…

Yes, that is true. But cooperation cannot simply mean providing money, but must also aim to educate people such that they can stay and work in their own country. Cooperation must be so oriented that projects can be continued autonomously. I have witnessed with my own eyes Rwanda's extreme dependence on international aid. In the projects we are promoting through the AMCA[1], the training of medical and nursing personnel is crucial to avoiding complete dependence on development assistance.

According to the draft Dispatch on International Cooperation 2021-2024, Switzerland is to allocate about 0.45% of its gross national product (GNP) to official development assistance. This is less than the 0.5% set by Parliament. You yourself also advocate 0.7%, as does the UN in its Sustainable Development Goals. How do you see the situation?

Parliament's decision last year to maintain the 0.5% target was a positive signal. I would still like us to reach 0.7%, like other northern countries. With its work of information, Alliance Sud is playing a role that is important to all politicians in this discussion. I am optimistic and confident that we will be able to maintain the target of 0.5%.

At a conference on the 2030 Agenda held in 2017, you delivered a speech entitled "2030 Agenda and political decisions, what are the contradictions?" What contradictions do you see in this connection?

Switzerland supported the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but at the same time is jeopardizing the financial resources for development cooperation. The SDGs should be implemented in a spirit of sharing and participation, to the benefit of minorities, against discrimination and in support of gender policies. Through the AMCA, for example, we run a project to tackle uterine cancer: an immunization campaign was carried out in Switzerland and in the Ticino, and in parallel we visited schools to explain the drama represented by this kind of cancer in poor countries. It is perhaps easier to make the discourse on solidarity and cooperation understandable through such practical examples.

As President of the National Council and hence Switzerland’s highest placed woman, you are able to give greater resonance to certain topics. What are your plans in that regard?

My selection of topics has been shaped by my own experience. They include the representation of women in politics as well as equality. I have always championed women’s rights and have been involved in the feminist movement. Another topic dear to me is that of minorities, I am a representative of Italian-speaking Switzerland and I favour a multilingual and multicultural Switzerland.

Women will strike on 14 June. Why do you find it so important for women to take to the street?

Already in 1991 the strike came from the grassroots, from women's associations and trade unions. There will be more than just a demonstration in Bern, local activities will also be organized. Many women will be on strike for the whole day, others symbolically just for an hour. Had I been told five years ago that 2019 would be a women's year, I would not have believed it. Thanks to the demonstration last September in Bern, the law on equal pay was not blocked in the Parliament.

What is the connection between the struggle for gender equality and that for social justice?

Women are playing a key role in both struggles. They are the ones who look after the family and also play a pivotal role in building society. If Rwanda and Mozambique are ever to successfully break free of dependence on traditional development assistance, it will only be thanks to their women.
The women's movement, equality and the fight against discrimination are closely bound up with the issue of social justice. Endeavours to combat discrimination against women should invariably also be moving in the direction of social justice and should challenge the patriarchal model of society that enables the rich to rule the poor.

The interview was conducted in Italian.


Marina Carobbio Guscetti has been the President of the Swiss National Council since November 2018, making her Switzerland's most highly appointed woman. From 1991 to 2007 she was a member of the Ticino Cantonal Parliament, since 2007 she has been in the National Council – earlier as a member of the Finance Committee, today as a member of the Social Security and Health Committee. Carobbio is Vice-President of the Socialist Party of Switzerland, of the “Alpine Initiative” association and of the Swiss Tenants' Association.


[1] AMCA, the Association for Medical Assistance to Central America, was founded in 1985 in the Ticino.