Swiss Great Lakes Program and the response to COVID-19 Pandemic

Local news, 18.05.2020

Switzerland has been present in the Great Lakes region since the 1960s. In order to deal effectively with the complex political, security, humanitarian and development challenges that characterize the region, Switzerland has adopted a coordinated approach of its foreign policy instruments. For three decades, Switzerland has mainly implemented development cooperation programs. From the 1990s, the emphasis was also placed on humanitarian aid and peacebuilding activities. Currently, the Confederation's action in the Great Lakes region is based on four priority areas: i) Dialogue, Fight against Impunity and Diplomacy; ii) Protection of Civilians; iii) Employment and Economic Development; iv) Health and Combating Violence against Women.

The Covid-19 appeared in late 2019 in Asia, and quickly spread across Europe, America and Africa. In order to prevent the spread of the virus, governments have taken measures including containment, closing of borders and restriction of movement.

In the Great Lakes region, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and its partners are developing strategies to adapt their interventions in order to respond to the rapid evolution of this health crisis and its socio-economic consequences by focusing on the most vulnerable groups.

Program adaptation strategies

Dialogue, Fight against Impunity and Diplomacy

Through the Media Support Program, Switzerland contributes to the establishment of professional, critical and diverse media. This action constitutes an important step in the control of Covid-19, as it provides the communities the knowledge of barrier gestures to the virus and gives them access to reliable information concerning the evolution of the local, national and regional situation. The operational objectives are:

  • To participate in public awareness campaigns on a large scale;
  • To disseminate reliable and updated information;
  • To maintain a space for dialogue between communities and authorities.

In terms of civil and political rights, the pandemic risks to be used by certain governments to limit freedom and reduce democratic space. The Swiss Media program promotes the implementation of a free and democratic space for expression and communication. The Governance program continues to advocate for human rights, in collaboration with partner organizations.

Protection of Civilians

COVID-19 and the measures taken by governments have serious consequences for the health, food security and nutrition status of already vulnerable populations. In addition, such a pandemic risks relegating to the background the classic humanitarian crises, however still very significant, especially in Eastern DR Congo.

Consequently, the Swiss humanitarian aid in DR Congo and in Burundi is committed to maintain its support for the most vulnerable populations (IDPs, victims of violence, etc.) to respond to their most urgent needs (health, food security, protection, support for victims of sexual violence, etc.) and strengthen their resilience while integrating a COVID-19 component (community awareness, infection prevention and control, medical care, etc.) in its interventions.

In addition to these activities, the humanitarian aid has facilitated the delivery of 1.3 tons of protective equipment intended for partner organizations involved in the fight against COVID-19 and the response to persistent humanitarian crises. The humanitarian team is also engaged in advocacy work, in a context where humanitarian access to victims and people in need is drastically reduced.

Employment and Economic Development

Covid-19 had serious consequences on the economic systems of countries in the region. There is a need to revive the small-scale economy, cross-border trade, artisanal production in villages, local construction and manufacturing. Small and medium-sized entrepreneurs lack the capital for an effective restart of their activities. In general, purchasing power has decreased and many people who have recently emerged from poverty are at risk. Switzerland pursues several objectives in this area:

  • Prioritization of construction activities planned under the PROMOST program (professional training) to promote employment and income
  • Manufacture of protective masks by artisans and apprentices in sewing training in Burundi and in Rwanda
  • Construction of  a school with an in-situ brick oven in Rwanda (collaboration with ENABEL)
  • Economic recovery project for small and medium enterprises in Rwanda (Western Province) under study

Health and Combatting Violence against Women

Switzerland is supporting the national Covid-19 preparedness and response plans in the Great Lakes region with a new program totaling CHF 6 million for the three countries (Burundi, Rwanda, DRC). The aim of this new program is to provide a rapid, flexible, effective and complementary contribution to the fight against the virus. In accordance with its regional strategy, Switzerland will focus its aid on the prevention component as well as on the community level of public health systems. This program will be implemented through United Nations agencies (WHO, UNDP, UNICEF) and will also include contributions to national and / or international NGOs.

  • This new program emphasizes on:
  • epidemiological surveillance;
  • infection prevention and control;
  • communication and community engagement.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation is maintaining the funding of the current health programs (Support program for the South Kivu health system / DRC, Mental health program Burundi, Health Program Rwanda). These programs will be complemented by specific activities related to Covid-19.

With regard to the fight against Gender and sexual based violence, it appears that the Covid-19 crisis and the preventive measures that have been taken, notably the confinement and closing of borders, tend to increase the vulnerability of women and girls through the reduction of their financial autonomy and the increase in domestic violence.

To respond to this, Switzerland pays particular attention to gender in all Covid-19 response programs and continues its ongoing efforts with the Psycho-social program and the Gender program (UN Women) which aim to:

  • Fight against sexual and gender-based violence;
  • Fight against domestic violence;
  • Improve the socio-economic status of women.