Article, Global

Who is afraid of the NGOs?

23.03.2021, International cooperation

The Responsible Business Initiative failed in November because of a majority vote by the cantons, conservative economic associations could heave a sigh of relief. The backlash came nonetheless: Chronicle of a political attack on NGOs.

Kristina Lanz
Kristina Lanz

Expert on international cooperation

Who is afraid of the NGOs?

Written admission test at the HSG St. Gallen for foreign applicants. Swiss civil society is also being put to the test, although it has long since passed the democracy test.
© Ennio Leanza / Keystone

Rarely has a popular initiative caused the kind of furore triggered by the Responsible Business Initiative (RBI). For months or even years ahead of the vote, it regularly made headlines and had a very high public profile thanks to the orange flags and the many activities organised by countless local committees. For the first time in Swiss political history there was concerted action by a broad coalition comprising 130 NGOs, numerous church and business representatives, parliamentarians of all political stripes, and thousands of volunteers. Although the initiative ultimately failed owing to the majority cantonal vote, it did show what civil society in general and NGOs in particular can achieve when they join forces (the initiative achieved a popular vote of 50.7%). What could really be construed as a positive sign of a vibrant democracy and an interested population seems not to be to everyone’s liking.

Liberals want NGOs banned from politics

Even before it came to a referendum, Ruedi Noser, Councillor of States (FDP.The Liberals) and opponent of the RBI from the outset, tabled a motion urging the Federal Government to examine whether non-profit organisations (NGOs) that engage in political work still met the eligibility criteria for tax exemption, or whether their tax-exempt status could be revoked in some way. But in a legally sound response, the Federal Council calls for the motion to be rejected. It lays out the activities that are deemed to serve the common good, namely: “social work, the arts and sciences, teaching, human rights promotion, the defence of homeland, nature and animals, as well as development aid.” It further points out that “in the case of tax-exempt organisations, there can also be interfaces with political topics (for example with environmental organisations, organisations for the disabled, health organisations, human rights organisations, etc.)”. The Federal Council goes on to state that “material or moral support for initiatives or referendums does not in principle stand in the way of tax exemption.” The motion will be discussed first in the Economic and Tax Committee (EATC) of the Council of States and then go back to the Council of States.

The RBI vote ignited a firestorm in Parliament, generating a deluge of questions, interpellations, postulates and motions, all of them questioning the political role of NGOs. National Councillor Elizabeth Schneider-Schneiter (Christian Democrats / CVP), for instance, has submitted a postulate requesting a report from the Federal Council on the question of which NGO activities were being funded from which sources and on what legal basis, and which political representatives sat on the steering committees. The rationale given for her initiative is that “development aid organisations are becoming ever more involved with development policy demands in Switzerland rather than occupying themselves with concrete development aid abroad.” A motion by National Councillor Hans-Peter Portman (FDP.The Liberals) calls on the Federal Council to review government support for international cooperation projects run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that have taken part in political campaigns and, if necessary, to cease that support.

These initiatives are apparently meant to avoid any critical discussion of the political role of private sector-based associations and think tanks, which as non-government players also in fact count among NGOs. Hence the express reference only to NGOs in the realm of development cooperation. The only thing is that NGOs have always been contractually prohibited from using funds from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) for political work. It does make sense for the Federal Government to be unwilling to put tax monies into political campaigns – but a blanket ban on political involvement by NGOs that receive federal funding would be as absurd as it would be problematic.

Democracy thrives on diversity of opinion

The lifeblood of our democracy is the fact that a diverse range of players can bring their expertise, opinions and concerns into the political debate. In addition to a variety of private sector players and other civil society groups (such as trade unions or education sector players), NGOs working for the common good also contribute to the democratic debate in our country. Unlike private sector representatives, who generally lobby for their own interests, NGOs under their mandates champion charitable, environmental or social causes. Political activities are funded from member contributions as well as from donations for specific political purposes.

While various conservative politicians sit on private sector boards of directors, regularly appear at lobbying events mounted by private sector associations and often vehemently oppose greater transparency (as that would reveal certain connections even more clearly), NGOs involved in development cooperation are now expected to undergo close scrutiny for any political connections and representation of interests. In parallel, it would seem that the same politicians so keen on the political muzzling of NGOs are not bothered by the fact that other players and associations that likewise benefit from public subsidies and other contributions also launch information campaigns and get involved in referendum battles.

A blanket “ban from politics” for NGOs that receive public funding would indeed effectively silence many critical voices and undergird the supremacy of business sector lobbyists. However much some conservative politicians may be hankering for this, it would be a declaration of bankruptcy for a country that readily highlights its democracy, world openness and humanitarian tradition. At the same time, should a political ban be placed on NGOs, other government contributions and subsidies would consequently have to be re-examined as well to see whether their recipients are politically active and, if necessary, such government contributions would also have to be stopped. That would hardly be in the interests of the politicians concerned.

Education as the key to the 2030 Agenda

In the aftermath of the RBI referendum, however, it was not just the political work of NGOs that came in for strong criticism – their educational and awareness-raising work in Switzerland also drew fire from all sides. In December, the SDC (presumably under pressure from the head of the Department) announced at the very last minute that with immediate effect it would no longer be able to fund educational and awareness-raising work by NGOs in Switzerland. This decision was all the more surprising, considering that just a year ago the SDC adopted new guidelines for cooperation with NGOs, which, among other things, noted that an important task of Swiss NGOs was to “sensitise the Swiss public, in particular young people, to global challenges and to raise awareness about the close links between peace, security, sustainable development and prosperity”[1].

Moreover, awareness-raising and education on sustainable development topics (including development cooperation) are a key component of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to which Switzerland has also signed up. With its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 2030 Agenda is addressed to all countries, not just developing one. It envisages a paradigm shift in international cooperation in that it calls on all countries to incorporate sustainability into all areas of policy-making and to take account of global interconnections in the process. Awareness-raising and education are indispensable to achieving the SDGs: SDG 4, for example, urges all countries to ensure that, by 2030, all students acquire the necessary knowledge and qualifications to promote sustainable development. This encompasses education on human rights, sustainable lifestyles, gender equality, a culture of peace and non-violence, world citizenship and the valuing of cultural diversity, as well as the contribution of culture to sustainable development. Education for sustainable development also plays a vital role in Switzerland’s 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS), the consultation procedure on which has just ended.

Switzerland ignores OECD recommendations

Even if NGOs may continue to engage in educational and awareness-raising activities in Switzerland (provided they can raise the funding by other means), the official exclusion of education and awareness-raising from SDC programme contracts with NGOs amounts to a huge backward step in the understanding of development cooperation. As is also the wish of National Councillor Schneider-Schneiter, NGOs should in future go back to focusing on “aid” abroad and cease drawing attention to global connections. What this really means is that NGOs may campaign against child labour in Côte d’Ivoire for example, but should make no mention of the fact that Swiss corporations too are profiting massively from child labour; they may build wells in Tanzania but are not allowed to report that irresponsible mining operations by multinational corporations are a major contributor to the water shortage; NGOs may care for climate crisis victims in Bangladesh but must refrain from pointing out that our lifestyle, our financial centre and our industry are massive contributors to global warming.

In what is termed a peer review, the OECD Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) assessed Switzerland’s development cooperation and offered a range of suggestions for improvement.[2] First, the OECD points to the lack of analysis and above all, of debate on the impacts of Switzerland’s domestic policies (such as financial, agricultural or trade policy) on developing countries. It urges Switzerland to “disseminate and debate such analyses, both in the government and broader Swiss society.” The OECD further points to Switzerland’s continuing poor record when it comes to communication and awareness-raising among its population on development cooperation topics. It therefore urges the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) to develop, resource and implement communications and global awareness-raising strategies for its development programme, and to enable SDC to communicate proactively to strengthen political and public support. Yet the recently issued decision indicates that the FDFA is moving in the opposite direction, a criticism also voiced by former Federal Councillor Micheline Calmy-Rey in an opinion piece in the “Weltwoche” newspaper. The SDC continues to be patronised in matters of communication and NGOs are expected to have as little to say as possible on matters of policy coherence. We may yet hope that the view will prevail in Parliament that Switzerland’s democracy can only be the better for an enlightened, well-informed and politically active population and a strong civil society.


[1] See: SDC guidance for engagement with Swiss NGOs

[2] See: OECD DAC (2019). The DAC’s main findings and recommendations. Extract from: OECD Development Co-operation Peer Reviews Switzerland 2019,

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