"We want to create prospects through our work on the ground"

Article, 14.07.2016

For 20 years, Switzerland has been supporting Bosnia and Herzegovina in strengthening democracy, the rule of law, and its development into a market economy. Elisabeth von Capeller, assistant director at the SDC and head of its Cooperation with Eastern Europe Department, looks back at the evolving cooperation activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and talks about the challenges and prospects facing the country today.

A woman is stacking apple boxes
Supporting the creation of businesses and jobs are priorities of Swiss cooperation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. © SDC

Ms von Capeller, how has Switzerland been supporting Bosnia and Herzegovina in the past 20 years?

During the first five years we provided emergency humanitarian aid: after the devastating war we provided people food, clothing, and medicines to people in need. We helped people returning after the war to rebuild their homes and businesses, enabling them to rapidly regain a livelihood.

Since 2000 we have increasingly concentrated our cooperation on longer-term development, supporting the country in its transition to becoming fully integrated within Europe. This also involves developing European values in the country, such as a socially responsible market economy, democracy, and human rights. 

What has Switzerland achieved so far?

Together with other donors, national institutions, and civil society organisations, Switzerland has contributed to major reforms in the areas of community development, youth unemployment, healthcare system efficiency, and migration management. Concrete results include establishment of modern counter services in municipal offices, improvements to drinking water supply systems, development of professional health services, and creation of jobs through start-ups. In addition, Switzerland has proposed new legislation important for a future-oriented society. As a multicultural democratic state, Switzerland is considered a model in many ways. 

Where is Bosnia and Herzegovina today, 20 years after the war?

The country continues to suffer from three main concerns: there are still deep divisions between the various population groups, i.e., the Muslim Bosniaks, the mostly Catholic Croats, and the Orthodox Serbs. The tripartite government structure is complicated and the overarching central government weak, hampering urgent political reforms. Finally Bosnians have by no means come to terms so far with the terrible Bosnian war. However, things are now moving in the right direction, as people gradually begin to respect each other again and try to find ways to live together.

What makes Switzerland's commitment special in this context?

Thanks to its long-term presence in the country, Switzerland has been able to build up a lot of confidence and is considered a credible partner. It is the fifth largest donor country today in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We have invested approximately CHF 600 million in cooperation programmes over the last 20 years. We focus on areas in which Switzerland can contribute particular experience or added value. 

Elisabeth von Capeller
Elisabeth von Capeller is head of the SDC's Cooperation with Eastern Europe Department. © SDC

What are Switzerland's key focus areas today in terms of cooperation?

Our main themes are grass-roots community development, better prospects for young people in the labour market, and a good-quality healthcare system that is accessible to all. Community development involves ensuring that the authorities see themselves as an efficient provider of services to the population – and not the other way round. Citizens should be involved in decision-making and gain insight, also in terms of finances.

As regards health, there is a lack of modern health services, especially in the countryside. Switzerland is helping to ensure that nurses, for example, can offer decentralised professional help. The SDC is also doing pioneering work for people who are still suffering from trauma 20 years after the Balkan war. An example of this is outpatient care, in some cases carried out by patient organisations. 

What are the focus areas and particularities of the economy?

Youth unemployment of around 60% and the resulting emigration present a huge problem. Thus Switzerland is actively promoting vocational training geared to the local labour market. Switzerland is also helping to improve the business environment through dismantling administrative barriers and establishing a transparent system of taxation.

I would like to mention here the contribution made by the Bosnian diaspora living in Switzerland:  with the support of Swiss investors, some of them have set up businesses in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including within the textile, wood processing, metal processing, and food industries. This has created thousands of jobs. 

What is Switzerland doing specifically to combat youth unemployment?

Our experience with the dual vocational education and training model is in high demand, but solutions must be adapted to the local environment. We encourage entrepreneurs to take on the responsibility of offering good apprenticeships and to pay their employees in relation to their performance. Newly trained workers must then get the opportunity to develop their skills on the job. We are also enhancing a professional counselling and placement system that links supply with demand. And we are teaching job seekers how to put together a successful application. 

Since 2009, Switzerland has had a migration partnership with Bosnia and Herzegovina. What has it achieved?

This partnership allows for timely and efficient migration management, for regular as well as irregular migration. Switzerland is supporting the professionalisation of institutions such as the border police, the Ministry of Security, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees. Successes include the correct handling of cases of migrants and their possible repatriation, integration of returnees, and combating trafficking organisations.

What is the motivating factor behind the continuation of Switzerland's activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

We want to create opportunities through our commitment on the ground. Despite all the political impasses, everywhere we go we find people committed to driving their country forwards in the interests of the whole population. That is why we remain optimistic that Bosnia and Herzegovina will develop in the longer term in a positive direction and progress towards membership of the EU.