Switzerland’s Middle East Cooperation Strategy: ensuring the long-term security of civilian populations

Article, 19.10.2015

Switzerland’s Middle East Cooperation Strategy for the years 2015-2018 focuses on the security of the populations of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon at a time of persistent conflict in the region. The humanitarian aid at the heart of Switzerland’s commitment is supported by development assistance projects as well as efforts in the area of humanitarian diplomacy and various initiatives aimed at improving human security and the conditions of migration.

A man fills a jerrycan with water.
Access to drinking water for civilian populations is one of the priorities Switzerland has set itself in the framework of its activities in the Middle East. © UNHCR

The crisis in Syria and its repercussions in neighbouring states, combined with the conflict situation in Iraq, represent a major challenge to international cooperation in the Middle East. The difficulty of access to needy populations, the multiplicity of armed groups, the proliferation of displaced persons and the tensions which exist in host communities are factors which make the organisation of humanitarian aid in the region particularly complex.

Through its cooperation strategy for the 2015-2018 period, Switzerland intends to support the emergency aid being provided in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon with a more sustainable approach to development for the populations concerned. Their capacity to cope with instability over the long term – referred to as “resilience” – depends on guaranteed access to basic services, protection of the civilian populations and securing the supply of drinking water.

The head of the SDC’s Middle East and North Africa Division, Thomas Oertle, here sheds some light on the action plan adopted by Switzerland.

How is it possible to plan a strategy of engagement for four years in a region as volatile as the Middle East?
A cooperation strategy must of course take due account of the fragility and volatility of the context in which it is to be implemented. A key requirement here is the development of scenarios and the appropriate principles that will make it possible to adapt the cooperation programme in the event of any significant alteration of the context. Furthermore in many areas (e.g. budget allocations per country, or per activity) such a strategy necessarily involves framework values that can guarantee a high level of flexibility when it comes to the actual implementation.

What is new about the strategy for 2015-2018 compared to what Switzerland has been doing in the Middle East to date?
There are three basic changes worth noting: to begin with activities relating to the access to water – a valuable and increasingly strategic resource in the Middle East – are to have greater weight than has so far been the case with Switzerland’s involvement.

Secondly, emphasis is now placed on implementing projects in accordance with the principle of resilience, i.e. people’s resistance levels. Short-term emergency relief in a humanitarian crisis such as that in Syria is not a suitable response. The ability of the displaced as well as of the host populations to resist must be strengthened so that they become more conflict-resistant and less dependent on short-term emergency relief. The same applies to local institutions, to which services must be provided in a way that is sustainable.

Thirdly, our focus is the strategy of all Swiss federal offices involved in international cooperation in the Middle East region. The aim is to increase both the coherence and the coordination and synergies of the activities of the various federal offices.

What advantages does Switzerland offer compared to other donors?
One Swiss advantage is the fact that we occasionally implement our own projects. I am thinking for example of the support given to families acting as hosts to Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon, for which they received payment in cash. Or the rehabilitation of a total of 84 schools in Jordan and Lebanon, thanks to which more than 50,000 children benefit from improved learning conditions. Considering the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children who have no access to education, this is a necessity that offers them future prospects.

Thanks to the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit Switzerland is also able to second highly qualified experts to aid organisations active in the region, including even countries in which Switzerland has no official presence such as Syria and Iraq.

Another advantage Switzerland can offer in the Middle East is neutrality and independence, which allows us for example to enter into dialogue with all parties and to argue with credibility for respect for international humanitarian law and for better access of humanitarian aid to the populations.