Switzerland first? No, thanks!

What role should Swiss corporations play in development cooperation in the future?
Political article
250 institutions, organizations and associations took part in the first ever public consultation on international cooperation. The verdict: Federal Councillors Cassis and Parmelin must go back to the drawing board.

Every four years, the Federal Council proposes to the Parliament a revised strategy for Switzerland’s international cooperation (IC). What goals should Switzerland be promoting through its international cooperation, what priorities should it set and in which countries should it be active? These questions were posed in the first ever public consultation on IC. Some 250 opinions were submitted, a number substantially higher than the 100 to 150 institutions, organizations and individuals that normally participate in the process of taking the pulse of the Swiss population.

Hardly anyone dismisses the strategic framework entirely, many agree with the principles, but the majority nevertheless calls for significant amendments to the text. The planned discontinuation of bilateral development cooperation with Latin America elicited highly controversial opinions. A large number of comments, including some from the cantons, are critical of the focus on Switzerland's self-interest. A one-sided prioritization of Switzerland's self-interest – short-term business or migration policy interests – is also disturbing the Zurich Insurance Group, which finds that the principle of long-term action and sustainability should prevail.

2030 Agenda as a reference framework

What is clearly missing is explicit recognition of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as the overarching reference framework. All international cooperation measures and programmes should be guided by this Agenda. This is the canon delivered by the cantons, trade unions, NGOs, academia and the business sector. This frame of reference must be better embodied in the international cooperation strategy.

On the issue of migration, which is most frequently commented on by the media, a comparatively small number of participants offered an opinion. It was specifically pointed out that expectations should not be raised to high. The decision not to tie ODA strictly to migration policy concessions from recipient countries was welcomed. The crucial question regarding the resources available for Official Development Assistance (ODA) was absent from the consultation. This notwithstanding, at least every second opinion commented on the topic. The right-wing conservative party SVP and the Swiss Trade Association (SGV) were the only ones calling directly or at least indirectly for an ODA funding cut. Everyone else calls for an increase. At a minimum, Switzerland should increase the planned allocation of 0.45% of gross national product (GNP) to the 0.5% decided by Parliament, and over the long term at least, also meet the 0.7% target repeatedly agreed on internationally. Many opinions even call for an ODA allocation of 1%. Given the budget surplus in the billions, this is financially feasible.

Few surprises

The initial analysis of the opinions confirms what was already known from earlier discussions. No-one is opposed to Switzerland's engagement in international cooperation. Even the SVP supports the general orientation, but seizes the opportunity to speak out against multilateralism and support for Swiss NGOs. Among the cantons, the Latin-language ones offered substantially more comments in the consultation process. Through cantonal federations they are far more directly involved in international cooperation than their German-speaking counterparts, which for the most part approved the draft without comment, or did not participate at all in the consultation. Opinions from the business sector (UBS, Zurich Insurance Group, Swiss Trading and Shipping Association (STSA)) used the replies more like an advertisement campaign, giving a central place to their own contributions to sustainable development. The substantial participation from church circles could be regarded as a surprise. In addition to the numerous replies expected from organizations that are active with their own development cooperation projects, many replies came from individual church parishes.

Unequivocal support for international cooperation, but preferably long-term and sustainable!

On balance, the consultation clearly illustrates the substantial support for international cooperation existing in Switzerland. Without a doubt, Switzerland should more sharply focus its contribution to international well-being, but clear criteria are needed to that end. The ball is now back in the Federal Council's court. If it takes the public consultation seriously, it must now return to the drawing board and improve on key aspects of its strategy.

What the parties are saying

The conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) wants to limit international cooperation funding to CHF 2 billion per year. It should revolve around humanitarian aid and bilateral development cooperation.

The Social Democrats’ Party (SP) calls for a clear focus on the 2030 Agenda, an improved policy coherence for sustainable development. The phased increase of ODA funding to 0.7% of GNP is overdue. Engagement in Latin America should be maintained and funding for Swiss NGOs should be increased.

The FDP The Liberals welcome the tighter geographical focus. IC should fulfil the purpose stated in the Constitution (Article 54 BV). The party calls for stronger links between international cooperation and migration. It plans to offer its comments on financing in Parliament only, but accepts 0.45% of GNP as a "working hypothesis".

The Christian Democrats (CVP) welcome the linking of IC to migration issues and the strengthening of the private sector. The 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change should be clearly identified as the frames of reference for international cooperation.

The Greens are critical of the "Switzerland first" approach, they underline the importance of the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and of policy coherence. IC funding should be increased to 0.7% of GNP. They are opposed to the withdrawal from Latin America.

The Green Liberal Party (glp) supports the increase in funding to 0.5% of GNP and also calls for greater account to be taken of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. 30% of IC funding should be expressly earmarked for environmental projects and programmes.

The Liberal Democrats (BDP) calls for Switzerland's humanitarian tradition not to be subjugated to economic interests. Poverty alleviation must continue to be the aim of Switzerland's international cooperation.