International cooperation

"Sustainable change requires a systemic effort"

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) was nominated for the 2021 Catalyst 2030 Award. In an interview to mark the virtual awards ceremony, SDC Vice-Director Ruth Huber explains why this ceremony means so much more than the award itself and discusses the role played by social enterprises in achieving the ambitious goals set out in the 2030 Agenda.

Portrait of Ruth Huber, Vice-Director of SDC and Head of Department Cooperation with Eastern Europe.

"Perception and recognition are both important, but the impact we have is more significant": Ruth Huber talking about partnerships with social enterprises in partner countries. © FDFA

Fighting global poverty is one of the most significant goals for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and is at the heart of the 2030 Agenda. To achieve the ambitious sustainable development goals (SDGs) in the coming years, it is necessary to bring to the table a variety of actors from different sectors. The private sector is a key partner in implementing these goals, especially social enterprises with a long tradition and well-established local presence. Switzerland has worked together with social enterprises in partner countries for many years now. This commitment and pioneering role is one of the reasons why the SDC was this year nominated for the Catalyst 2030 Award. The international organisation recognises individuals and institutions which have demonstrated a long-term commitment to the goals set out in the 2030 Agenda and are promoting systems change.

On 25 March 2021, the Catalyst 2030 Awards were presented in six categories at a global awards ceremony in the UK. The SDC's development cooperation was also nominated for an award in the Bi/Multilateral Organisation category. Ruth Huber, Vice-Director of SDC and Head of Department Cooperation with Eastern Europe, took part in the virtual awards ceremony and in an interview explains why social enterprises in particular play a key role in achieving the development goals set out in the 2030 Agenda and how the SDC can use its experience to perform well on the international stage.

Ruth Huber, the SDC was nominated for this year's Catalyst 2030 Award. What is the significance of this award?

Ruth Huber: It is a great honour to have been nominated for this award. The nomination shows that our work is recognised internationally and above all, that our innovative approach is valued. But even more importantly, this award highlights a key aspect of development cooperation: the role played by social enterprises in fighting poverty and achieving the sustainable development goals set out in the 2030 Agenda.

Why do social enterprises in particular play such an important role in this respect?

The 2030 Agenda development goals are extremely ambitious. To achieve them, we need a variety of actors to work together across the board – and this includes the private sector. On the one hand, this involves partnerships with companies with which we are pursuing joint development goals, and on the other, we need to strengthen the private sector in developing countries. Social enterprises are key actors in this respect. Firstly, they operate on economic principles, and secondly, social enterprises and the SDC often have the same goals, in particular on social and environmental issues. Social enterprises also play a key role when it comes to making a widespread impact in the partner countries, that is to say instigating change across an entire sector or region, rather than just for a single producer.

What are Switzerland's strengths in this particular area – in terms of cooperation with social enterprises? What has the SDC done to deserve its nomination for the Catalyst 2030 Award?

The SDC has worked together with social enterprises for many years now. We see ourselves as playing a pioneering role in this regard. Our nomination for the Catalyst 2030 Award is recognition of this commitment and our courage to promote flexible working practices and innovative approaches to financing in the area of social cooperation. The SDC was quick to recognise the potential of social enterprises and develop innovative approaches to both providing financial support to these companies and also helping them operate more professionally in their respective locations. This, in turn, enables them to actually play a key role in development. 

An awards ceremony increases visibility – it helps us promote our innovative approaches and ideas as to how cooperation with social enterprises can make a systemic impact and it opens up dialogue with other actors, which can then adapt these approaches to different projects and countries.

An award can increase awareness of an issue. How do we go about translating this awareness into an actual impact?

Perception and recognition are both important, but the impact we have is more significant. An awards ceremony increases visibility – it helps us promote our innovative approaches and ideas as to how cooperation with social enterprises can make a systemic impact and it opens up dialogue with other actors, which can then adapt these approaches to different projects and countries. International platforms such as Catalyst 2030 also bring together a wide variety of actors and so represent a valuable networking opportunity.

What are the advantages of this sort of global interaction?

International platforms provide a valuable opportunity to exchange knowledge and experience. Because the SDC has been working together with social enterprises for so many years now, and taking into account all the knowledge and – above all – experience it has gained here, it is viewed as a valuable, experienced partner in the field of social cooperation on both a bilateral and multilateral basis. We are all ultimately pursuing the same goal: as an international community, we are working to implement the 2030 Agenda. To achieve this, we need to draw upon the wealth of experience and specialist knowledge offered by the various actors involved, we have to learn from each other, we must have the courage to try out new, innovative approaches.

Can this also lead to actors launching their own projects?

Absolutely! One important thing to come out of these international partnerships are community projects, something we call "co-creations". One example of this is the Catalyst 2030 Social Impact Week, which will see all the participants and nominees for the Catalyst 2030 Award come together in May 2021. The focus here will not be on awards, but instead on specific projects. It will be an opportunity to exchange experiences and knowledge. We intend to learn from each other and so develop joint ideas and approaches for how best to benefit from the key role played by social enterprises locally. This will help us in our efforts to fight global poverty over the long term.

What are the main challenges in achieving this goal?

COVID-19 in particular has set many countries back in their development and has driven millions into poverty. At the same time, it will cost a huge amount of money to implement the 2030 Agenda. Especially at a time when the pandemic is damaging the global economy, people are losing their jobs, children are unable to attend school and healthcare systems are being pushed to their limits, it is essential for all actors to collectively pursue these goals. Switzerland has also committed to the 2030 Agenda – not only in the area of development cooperation, but also with measures here in our country, with regard to climate change, for example.

Is it at all realistic to think that we can achieve these sustainable development goals by 2030 given these circumstances?

The 2030 Agenda development goals are extremely ambitious. They should act as motivation. We are still a long way from achieving certain goals, but the important thing is to be consistent in making progress towards them. With its clear time horizon, the 2030 Agenda gives us a sense of urgency, it gives us the push we need to develop new tools and approaches. This responsibility, which has been jointly adopted by the international community, forms the basis for the ambitious path that we will consistently follow together. 

Thanks to digital innovation, many people in poorer regions now have wider access to information, education and services. It is extremely important to empower the local civilian population; after all, it is they who will be driving the change in their country.

COVID-19 has made the last year very challenging. Is there anything positive to be taken from the last twelve months?

COVID-19 has been and continues to be a difficult situation. There are often far stricter measures restricting social and economic life in our partner countries. If, however, we are to take something positive from the last year, it is the innovative approaches we have adopted in terms of digitalisation, which we have been able to roll out in a number of different areas. Thanks to digital innovation, many people in poorer regions now have wider access to information, education and services. It is now easier for citizens to become more involved in public and political life. It is extremely important to empower the local civilian population; after all, it is they who will be driving the change in their country.

Just why is it so important to change the whole system? Is it not better to provide support to specific individuals?

Sustainable change requires a systemic effort. This means that we need to look at the system as a whole, not just individual actors, such as a specific supplier within a value chain. As an example, let us take a farmer, who owns a few cows. It is not enough to just help this one farmer produce more milk or buy more cows. If he cannot sell his milk because there is not a market where he can do so, or because there is no processing plant to turn his milk into other dairy products, then the farmer’s livelihood cannot be safeguarded over the long term. He needs a market to sell to, economic and political frameworks need to be put into place, and there have to be standards implemented so that the whole system can function properly. And then it is not only this one farmer that we can help, but many farmers or potentially even the entire sector.

Within the SDC, you are the Head of Department Cooperation with Eastern Europe and therefore can observe specific instances of how Swiss development assistance is provided on bilateral and multilateral levels. What are your experiences of this in the various countries?

In countries stretching from the West Balkans through to Central Asia, Switzerland's international development work focuses largely on two areas: promoting democratic development and the transition to social market economies. Switzerland has a lot to offer in both these areas. We have a wealth of governance experience, are able to share our knowledge of federal state structures and on a sub-national level, for example, advise local authorities on how best to cooperate with the civilian population. We – that is to say the SDC and SECO together – also have a wealth of experience in the economic sector, which we are able to share with partner countries. Vocational and professional education and training is a good example of this. It is also important to strengthen local framework conditions for the private sector so that jobs can be created for the local workforce. People need work and an income so they can have prospects in life. In various countries, we also support development in the areas of healthcare, water supply and climate change. It is in Switzerland's interest for countries in our neighbourhood to live in stability and prosperity.  In addition, we cannot forget the importance of the large diaspora in Switzerland and their potential to drive development in their home countries. The countries in the West Balkans, in particular, have an extremely close relationship with Switzerland, not only in terms of their people, but also their geographic proximity.

The winners of the Catalyst 2030 Awards

On Thursday, 25 March 2021, a virtual global awards ceremony was held for the first time to present the Catalyst 2030 Awards. Across various categories, the awards recognise philanthropic, government, multilateral and business leaders and organisations which campaign for collaboration, co-creation and the transformation of power dynamics in order to achieve the SDGs. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) was nominated in the category Bi/Multilateral Organisation. The winners:

  • Individual Philanthropist: Azim Premji & MacKenzie Scott
  • Lifetime Impact Award: Ray Chambers
  • Small Organisation: Garfield Foundation
  • Large Organisation: Ford Foundation
  • Philanthropic Intermediary: Greenwood Place
  • Corporate: IKEA
  • Bi/Multilateral Organisation: Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation
  • Government Africa: Ministry of Health, Malawi
  • Government America: Government of Paraguay
  • Government Asia: Government of Taiwan
  • Government Europe: Finnish National Commission on Sustainable Development

Catalyst 2030 was founded in 2020 at the World Economic Forum in Davos. It aims to catalyse collaboration across sectors in order to drive the systems change needed to achieve the sustainable development goals set out in the 2030 Agenda. 

Poster showing all 17 SDGs of the 2030 Agenda.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals form the core of the 2030 Agenda. Switzerland, along with other countries, has committed to achieving these ambitious goals by 2030. © UN

The 2030 Agenda's Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pursue an integrated approach to the future development of our society, combining progress on economic development with social inclusion and environmental sustainability. The 17 SDGs, with their 169 targets, form the core of the 2030 Agenda. They balance the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, and place sustainable development and the fight against poverty on the same agenda for the first time. The 2030 Agenda, which came into force in 2016, is the new universal frame of reference for national and international efforts to jointly solve major global challenges such as extreme poverty, climate change, environmental degradation and health crises. All UN member states have declared their willingness to join forces to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Switzerland too has committed to meeting the SDGs (2030 Agenda). In addition, incentives are to be created to encourage non-governmental actors to make an increasingly active contribution to sustainable development. 

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