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1 February 2006 Switzerland and the Millennium Development Challenge
Martin Sommer
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The development policy context definitely changed after the Millennium Summit and the Monterrey Consensus early this century. Home-made and individual solutions—irrespective of their quality—are increasingly inadequate in a complex and globalized world. Swiss development policy must streamline and profile its strategies in order to retain its edge in terms of comparative advantages and contribute effectively to making the world more inclusive and sustainable.

Many pilots, even more navigators

For decades, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) focused its programs and limited resources primarily on carefully selected partner countries and key thematic areas (poverty reduction and social and economic discrimination). Cooperation strategies were crafted jointly with partners and based on local needs and priorities. Meanwhile, the development policy context has evolved to become more interrelated. Apart from SDC and the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (seco)—the principal Swiss public sector institutions mandated with international cooperation—numerous other line departments have launched international activities on their own. Accordingly, the Swiss Parliament is confronted with a growing number of decisions on cooperation in the fields of health, agriculture, security and peace building, and the environment. The direction of Swiss development policy is meanwhile driven by numerous actors with often diverging interests. Securing coherence in the framework of the Millennium and Monterrey partnership agreements—both key commitments for Switzerland—has turned out to be a Herculean task.

Internationally, Switzerland is confronted with other challenges. Policies and instruments need to be more effectively harmonized with development and transition country partners, as well as with other donor agencies. The UN further expects donor countries to increasingly commit to global security and human rights. With these and other recent changes, an era of sovereign Swiss development policy practice is slowly coming to an end in favor of a more orchestrated approach. The Millennium Consensus, but also recent Swiss membership in the United Nations, have clearly revealed that an optimal blend between bi- and multilateral instruments and a stricter sharing of roles among multiple actors have become necessary.


Changes in context have resulted in a gradual erosion of policy focus. Swiss development policy today is accused by the Development Assistance Committee of the OCDE and the World Bank of proliferation, with too many thematic partnerships in too many countries, resulting in fading effectiveness and leverage.

It is an acknowledged reality that SDC's portfolio is broad. Since 1990, SDC has withdrawn cooperation from 5 countries but initiated cooperation in another 23, including countries formerly part of the Soviet Union, often with small programs. Added to these are numerous initiatives for peace building, conflict prevention, and promotion of human rights by other Swiss government departments and the over 20 partner country programs of seco. Recent reform of SDC's thematic division has resulted in commitments of often scarce resources and minimal capacity in over 30 priority areas of thematic cooperation, while humanitarian initiatives continue worldwide.

The consequences of this diversification include a gradual loss of institutional orientation and profile, inconsistency of objectives, erosion of core competencies, and inflated overheads. As a result, the impact of SDC in its core tasks—poverty alleviation and economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable development—is threatened in the longer term.

…and focused

SDC's programs continue to be perceived by the Swiss public as highly relevant and professionally implemented. Long-term accumulation of competence and experience with direct cooperation have helped SDC to become a partner respected in many countries and by many international institutions.

On top of this, the Federal Law on International Cooperation already laid the foundation for a development policy committed to “reducing poverty, hunger and malnutrition and promoting balanced ecosystems” as early as 1976. In the 1990s, SDC further refined its strategies in such a way that they can be considered largely compatible with the Millennium Consensus, in spirit as well as practice.

In 2003, SDC reported that over 26% of its resources went directly into initiatives related to poverty reduction and food security (MDG 1). These included programs for rural development, promotion of small-scale industry, vocational education, agricultural research for development, and food aid in emergencies. A 30% share of resources was invested in development partnerships (MDG 8), eg for strengthening local institutions, bi-and multilateral networks for debt reduction, governance, and health, to name but a few. An additional 30% was spent on environmental sustainability (MDG 7) and public health (MDG 4–6), and smaller proportions on gender (MDG 3) and basic education (MDG 2). The remaining 14% of SDC's resources were earmarked for security, decentralization, human rights, support of transition countries, and research. Among SDC's partner countries, a clear bias can be observed for poor states and regions in mountain areas (see Mountains and People, published by SDC in 2002).

In its Progress Report on the MDGs (2005), the Swiss Government states that “Switzerland accords high priority to a sustainable use of natural resources. The principle of environmental sustainability enshrined in Swiss Foreign Policy is a fundamental pre-condition and building block of pro-poor development. …The sustainable development of mountain regions is another priority. As an Alpine country, Switzerland has vast experience in sustainable mountain development and is engaged in partnerships with mountain countries such as Bolivia, Nepal, and Bhutan, as well as in Central Asia. The respective focus is often on the protection of natural resources and the preservation of biodiversity.” (SDC 2005)

Hence, SDC, Swiss NGOs, and other actors in international cooperation have already made a substantial contribution to reaching the MDGs to date. However, after the UN General Assembly of 2005, many crucial challenges remain to be addressed. Among them are the continued commitment to debt reduction, accelerated progress in fair trade, and the financing of development. Equally important are domestic efforts to harmonize development policy initiatives, simplify procedures, and improve framework conditions for more effective impact.

Globalization requires modified approaches

Developing countries are called upon to formulate comprehensive national development strategies based on the Millennium Consensus. Donor countries, including Switzerland, increasingly need to insert their own cooperation program into this framework strategy, thus strengthening local initiatives as well as ownership of both the process and the resources.

For SDC, one of the most important challenges consists in crafting development priorities based on partner needs and de-politicizing this process. A development agenda which pretends to strengthen national ownership and responsibility has to be the fruit of planning in partnership. In the best interest of coherence and synergies, all available thematic, multilateral, and humanitarian instruments should be relevant and effective when addressing these priorities. Moreover, it is inevitable that SDC concentrate its interventions in such a way that limited resources are invested in a few countries, focusing on selected key issues with the most relevant partners. Priority country programs should not fall below a minimal critical level, multilateral measures should be increasingly linked with bilateral priorities. Effective coordination and role-sharing in humanitarian initiatives is imperative, as recent natural disasters have amply reconfirmed. Such measures can help to better link SDC's mandate to the roadmap of implementing the MDGs.

Joint efforts—differentiated roles

By way of direct presence on the ground, SDC has been and will be in a position to ensure quality cooperation. Where it has important program experiences, such as in the water sector in India, in health in Tanzania, or decentralization in Bolivia, SDC participates actively in national policy dialogue with governments. SDC continues to cofinance MDG-related local initiatives and to focus on those issues which have a high probability of effectively reducing poverty, increasing food security, and securing sustainable social and economic development.

SDC will also ensure that access to knowledge and technology for partner countries will be enhanced, eg through its substantial participation in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and in information technology. On the multilateral level, SDC is dedicated to fostering enabling framework conditions to accelerate progress towards attaining the MDGs. Active participation in international agreements, the strengthening of selected institutions and programs, and the promotion of better role-sharing in international cooperation are some strategies for achieving this.

The agenda for the MDGs has been negotiated by all UN member countries. To implement them, and to make shared and mutual responsibility a reality at all levels, Switzerland, like other rich countries, must mobilize additional and sustainable efforts as well as resources. As a member of the global community, and in order to maintain political credibility, our country will have to honor all its international commitments and move from words to action along this way. It will also be important to clarify conflicting foreign policy objectives and do everything possible to improve framework conditions for early and significant reduction of poverty and hunger, and elimination of environmental degradation, and thus improve global security. This will ultimately pay unimaginable dividends to everyone.

[1] The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Martin Sommer "Switzerland and the Millennium Development Challenge," Mountain Research and Development 26(1), 72-73, (1 February 2006).[0072:SATMDC]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 February 2006
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