Trust in Switzerland is our greatest asset in Africa
Sustainable development cooperation is not a one-way street. Switzerland is working to strengthen African economies and helping to harness the dynamism of young people in Africa. Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis explains why in the September edition of the Swiss current affairs magazine Schweizer Monat.
On his Africa trip in 2019, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis was keen to talk to local people; as here with a school class in Mozambique. © FDFA
Traditional development aid is subject to criticism. Critical voices are increasingly questioning whether money spent on foreign aid and development cooperation projects is money well spent. They argue that aid money is not reaching those who need it, or that it has negative consequences such corruption and dependency. This is a reductive argument which misses the point about the impact and effectiveness of modern development cooperation.
Instead of getting bogged down in debates about whether traditional development aid is a curse or a blessing for partner countries, the question we should be asking is what kind of development cooperation takes account of today's global realities. Modern development cooperation is moving away from the notion of a one-sided donor-recipient relationship towards that of a mutual partnership.
Rapidly developing African countries are a particularly good example of how modern development cooperation ought to be understood as an interplay between equal partners – not least because just as there is no homogeneous Africa, there can be no one form of development cooperation.
The issues facing individual countries are as varied as the conditions for cooperation in different countries in Africa. Africa is not a homogeneous continent, but rather a group of 54 states – with major differences between and in some cases within them. We would therefore do well to take a more differentiated view both of Africa and of the issue of development cooperation.
Regional stability thanks to local mediation
As head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), in 2019 I also travelled to Africa – specifically to South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia – where I was able to gain first-hand insights into Switzerland's engagement. My journey brought home to me the diversity and flexibility of our development cooperation. It underscored that while not all African countries have the same needs, Switzerland enjoys a high level of credibility throughout the region – not as a donor, but as a mediator, provider of emergency assistance and economic partner.
Mozambique is a case in point: Switzerland's neutrality and considerable credibility – both historically and in the current geopolitical context – have enabled us to play a mediating role in the country's domestic conflict. Mozambique's civil war, which raged for decades and claimed millions of lives, was brought to an end a year ago with the signing of the peace agreement between President Filipe Nyusi and the leader of the main opposition party.
As a country untainted by a colonial past, Switzerland is perceived as impartial, allowing it to mediate between conflicting parties. Its neutrality enables Switzerland to facilitate dialogue between opposing parties and to contribute to lasting peace. Whenever one country achieves peace and security, it makes a significant contribution to regional stability.
From humanitarian aid to long-term development
In addition to its role as a mediator, Switzerland has also become a byword for fast, uncomplicated and professional assistance in emergency situations. In the immediate aftermath of two devastating cyclones in spring 2019, experts from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit sprang into action to deliver emergency shelter and restore drinking water supplies to the affected areas of Mozambique. After natural disasters in particular, Switzerland's effective and above all unbureaucratic assistance is vitally important for local populations.
Furthermore, following the cyclones, two young Swiss architects, Emilie Schmid und Mikhail Broger from EPFL, employed state-of-the-art drone technology to map the devastated area and sustainably transform a refugee camp into a small city. Thanks to digitalisation and Swiss innovation, a temporary solution became a new home for thousands of people.
During my trips abroad I was thus able to experience first-hand just how innovative and effective the coordinated use of the different instruments of Swiss foreign policy can be. But I also saw how crucial it is for the business sector to be integrated as an essential component of any sustainable development policy.
Business leaders can do something that governments and aid organisations cannot: create jobs. Over 90% of all jobs are created by the private sector. These jobs are key to offering young people prospects locally and to integrating Africa's rapidly growing population into their domestic labour markets while promoting sustainable economic growth. The economic potential for this exists in most African countries. The question is how we can best harness it locally.
Long-term prospects thanks to local jobs
It is in the interests of both African countries and Switzerland for Swiss companies to invest more in selected African countries, closing gaps in local value chains, opening new markets and creating jobs. Many Swiss companies are already doing this successfully: over 100 Swiss firms are present in South Africa, and Swiss companies are also making investments in Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire and Kenya, thereby contributing to the development of local economies.
Switzerland is increasingly supporting public-private partnerships – from the water sector to agriculture and healthcare. In Kenya, for example, Switzerland worked with a private sector partner to introduce adaptable models for an affordable high-quality village water supply. In Mozambique, a local company helped set up a competitive market system that helps smallholders to invest in improved seed varieties.
And in Somalia, where up to eighty percent of healthcare is provided by small informal businesses, Switzerland is working with representatives from the private sector on models to improve the quality and affordability of private healthcare.
Finally, Kenya faces major challenges as a host country to nearly half a million refugees. To make the refugees less dependent on outside support and to exploit the benefit of their presence for the economies of remote areas, Switzerland is currently piloting a partnership with the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group.
The partnership aims to attract private sector businesses to the Kakuma refugee camp area and to support companies already based in the area to create jobs, generate income and provide an improved range of services and products.
Foreign policy in the interests of Switzerland's domestic policy
I am confident that such investments are beneficial to all parties. That is why Africa is a key geographic priority region in the FDFA's Foreign Policy Vision (AVIS28), and in the Federal Council's resulting Foreign Policy Strategy for 2020–23. The new International Cooperation Strategy 2021–24 too places greater focus on development in Africa. Switzerland is a globally networked country, so socio-political security and economic stability abroad are in our own interest. While war, famine and natural disasters drive migration flows to Europe, corruption and economic instability lead to fragile trade relations.
Switzerland and Africa: a long-standing relationship with potential
Die As part of its foreign policy strategy (FPS 2020–23), Switzerland has organised an international workshop to develop its first ever strategy for sub-Saharan Africa. Hailing from more than 30 different African countries, the diplomatic representatives taking part in the workshop in Bern are putting the emphasis on long-term cooperation and the vast potential, which lies in the relations with African countries. More on Switzerland's Sub-Saharan-Africa-Strategy
Switzerland is a globally networked country, so socio-political security and economic stability abroad are in our own interest. While war, famine and natural disasters drive migration flows to Europe, corruption and economic instability lead to fragile trade relations.
Switzerland does well to see African countries not only as partners in development cooperation, but to recognise the innovation and economic potential of this young continent and to work with them as an innovative scientific and economic partner.
Switzerland's pragmatism, high-quality products and services, effectiveness and long-standing partnerships with local authorities, institutions and companies have earned it an excellent reputation in Africa. Swiss expertise is highly valued and provides a sound basis for building fruitful partnerships. Trust in Switzerland is our greatest asset in Africa.
Development cooperation means working together
Economic and demographic developments in African countries and Switzerland's long-standing humanitarian tradition ensure that Swiss development cooperation and Africa will continue to work together in close partnership – to the benefit of both. Development cooperation can no longer be viewed as a unidirectional form of assistance but rather as a cooperative partnership.
Development cooperation is predicated on mutual understanding and a shared interest in creating conditions for the sustainable development of local potential and joint action to achieve this objective. We are all called upon to engage more deeply with Africa and to move beyond one-dimensional approaches. Africa has enormous economic potential, dynamic young people and a growing urban middle class that is broadly receptive to our liberal values.
As an economically strong and innovative country, we ought to support Africans to pursue this path and allow them to find their own solutions locally. This is also in Switzerland's interests.
First published in the September 2020 edition of the Swiss current affairs magazine Schweizer Monat.