SDC: The new Director's plans
Martin Dahinden took over the helm of the SDC on Labour Day. Like his predecessor Walter Fust, Dahinden is not from the world of development cooperation. Alliance Sud News talked with him about the reorganisation he has mapped out and the intentions behind it. - Interview published in: Alliance Sud News, No. 57, Autumn 2008
Martin Dahinden, what is your impression of the SDC?
Many staff members are convinced about what they are doing and are highly committed. I also have a good impression of the programmes on the ground. This summer I closely studied those under way in Tanzania, which is a priority country. I did however see the need for some action on orientation, concentration of efforts, and leadership.
On what ideas and concepts did you base the reorganisation?
We realised that multilateral and bilateral cooperation as well as theme-based work were not sufficiently interlinked. We intend to improve on this in the first phase of the reorganisation. Many ideas came from board members who were involved with the «reorganisation» task force. Others came from staff members. Some of our specific plans, such as transferring responsibility for SDC relations with the aid agencies to the management, had long been discussed in the house but not implemented. Next year in the second phase of reorganisation we will be focusing on the relationship between headquarters and the work in progress in developing countries. The core issue here is ensuring that as much SDC resources as possible actually reach the partner countries. To me that is one of the central tenets of development cooperation.
One crucial aspect of the reorganisation was eliminating the Core Themes Department, which had held central responsibility for the SDC's themes and expertise. Where are these now being handled?
All SDC activities have a bilateral, a multilateral and a theme-specific component. The old organisational set-up gave rise to highly fragmented activities. To bring them closer together again we reduced the SDC structure to two operational levels, namely, one with geographically assigned activities (bilateral cooperation with individual countries/regions) and a non-geographical one (global cooperation). Our goal here is to associate the themes and expertise more closely with bilateral and global cooperation. Staff members in operational sectors are now handling specialised issues. They will be networked amongst themselves into a «hub» that will cover the particular expertise involved, across all geographical areas. We have also assigned individual multilateral organisations to geographical areas. The African Development Bank, for instance, will now be handled where Africa is otherwise mostly dealt with, and no longer as part of the international financial institution section.
Some of the topics previously handled by the Core Themes Department have now reappeared in sections concerned with «global issues», which will be attached to the newly created global cooperation department. What is the goal being pursued here?
The idea is to carry out fixed-term projects to help solve global problems. For now we are working on two global issues – climate change and food security. Migration is yet another global issue under discussion. These are development-related topics that have a global and regional dimension. Global programmes can also extend to non-priority countries that are nonetheless critical to combating poverty in the poorest countries. It is expected that only a small portion of overall resources will be allocated to global issues. I am not yet in a position to give concrete examples of projects. Global issues are of concern not just to the SDC but to other government departments as well, with which we must therefore seek dialogue. On food security for instance, the Federal Office for Agriculture also has a say, as does the Ministry for the Economy concerning the role of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which it handles. By early 2009 we expect to have approved the orientation of the global issues programmes and to have started implementing the projects.
What role do you see for the aid agencies in Switzerland's development cooperation work?
I see the aid agencies and their presence in the developing countries as very important. I do not subscribe to the current policy whereby development aid is channelled strictly through international funding agencies. This is my personal conviction. Some people in the SDC and the Federal Government hold a different view, however. It is important for the Swiss to gain first-hand knowledge of developing countries through practical work. It is important for us to be visible in the field, even though this is sometimes viewed with mild amusement as the old-fashioned showing of one's colours. I am referring not just to the SDC's presence through the Coordination Offices, but also to a presence through the Swiss aid agencies.
The aid agencies have the impression that over the past 20 years the SDC has been working less and less through them...
That is true. The OECD Paris Declaration is exerting some pressure along those lines. If more development cooperation contracts are to be awarded through local procurement systems in developing countries in the future, that will affect the SDC's traditional cooperation with service providers.
It is crucial to the effectiveness of development aid for national development agencies to remain largely independent of their own country's economic and political objectives. Yet the reorganisation is expected to better integrate the SDC with the Foreign Ministry. How should that be understood?
To my mind, the SDC's development policy is a part of foreign policy. As it is currently being implemented, Switzerland's foreign policy is not at odds with our long-term development policy. Another question altogether is the short-term exploitation of development cooperation for other purposes. That should not happen, and I see no danger of this.
How does one therefore explain the idea that the SDC should become more integrated into the Foreign Ministry and cooperate better with the Government?
There had been some instances of duplication and parallel execution of tasks in the Foreign Ministry. There is expertise in other ministries that the SDC has not drawn on. Improvements can be made in this area. Ultimately, the SDC's self-containment meant that it was less able to influence other policy areas of the Federal Government. I see such influence as very important, however.
When the SDC tried some years ago to introduce the viewpoints and concerns of the developing countries into Switzerland's WTO negotiating position, it did not go down particularly well either with the Foreign Ministry or with Seco.
I cannot guarantee that initiatives will succeed. But it is important to try to get things done. When we look at the SDC's portfolio today, it clearly encompasses a good part of all foreign policy topics – starting with EU policy (through the cohesion contribution), and including the Balkans and cooperation with Eastern Europe, as well as relations with the South. Alongside development issues, trade and environment questions also play a large role. The truth is that today, almost every line ministry (health, education, energy, and so on) has a developmental dimension. A strong developmental role for SDC is indispensable if Switzerland is to have a degree of coherence in this field.
You had accumulated long foreign policy experience before taking over the SDC. What in your view would be the foreign policy consequences if our government were to inform the international community that it was ceasing development cooperation?
Switzerland is known as one of the richest countries with some of the most affluent cities and the best quality of life. Its image would be badly tarnished if from such a privileged position, Switzerland were to withdraw from the international consensus to provide development assistance. It makes a difference to the way other countries and their economic and political players deal with us, whether we narrow-mindedly pursue our own short-term advantage only, or whether we behave as would befit a country that is home to the ICRC, the champion of international humanitarian law, and the seat of the second biggest Office of the United Nations. Unilateral withdrawal from development cooperation would mean critical medium-term setbacks – for example, for «international Geneva» or for Swiss companies abroad.
Interview: Peter Niggli, Director of Alliance Sud