Slowly, but surely – Half a Century of Swiss Development Assistance


The predecessor of the SDC of today, the Service for Technical Cooperation, was founded in the spring of 1961. In celebration of the first half century of Swiss development assistance, historian René Holenstein, himself a development expert and SDC aid worker, has written a book about the experience. In the following interview he discusses his findings.

How did Swiss development assistance begin?

Switzerland’s relations with the developing countries go back a long way. They include not only the activities of Swiss industry, the exportled private sector and financial institutions but also religious and philanthropic bodies active in the Third World. So when the Swiss government began to provide development assistance it was possible to make use of existing contacts and relationships. At the end of the Second World War another organisation founded by the Confederation and private relief organisations, «Schweizer Spende», played a major role. It enabled people to see the consequences of the war in Europe. When the nations of Europe no longer needed Swiss aid it was then focused on what was called «extra-European areas». Moreover, the independence movements in the colonies of that period provided another reason for shifting attention to the problems of the «underdeveloped» countries.

How did the pioneers of Swiss aid 50 years ago help the developing countries?

The story of Swiss development assistance is closely bound up with developments in the United Nations as well as with US foreign policy. One of Switzerland’s first major financial contributions was to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). More or less at the same time, at the end of the 1940s, preparations were begun to provide Swiss bilateral technical assistance in which prominent staff of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich played a decisive role. The most important types of development assistance were already in existence by this time. The mix consisted of multilateral and bilateral aid, technical cooperation, and increasingly also financial and economic assistance.

Swiss development assistance quickly made a name for itself thanks to a number of innovative bilateral projects. One of the best known is the building of suspension bridges in Nepal. In the most primitive living and working conditions Swiss engineers erected these structures in collaboration with the Nepalese. The technicians had to put up with difficult conditions, living in tents or other temporary accommodation. All of the building materials were carted in from a considerable distance. This pioneering work has exerted an influence over the long term. Switzerland’s credibility in Nepal today is to a great extent due to projects like these.

What major changes have there been over the years in the way Switzerland provides development assistance?

One major change occurred in the 1970s, when development policy and with it development aid acquired new importance. In this way Switzerland was able to help improve general conditions in the economic, social, ecological and political spheres. The new development policy motto was «development means liberation». The concept of «development cooperation» made its appearance with the emphasis on partnerships for future relations with countries of the South. Another major change came with the speeding up of globalisation and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Cooperation with Eastern Europe took off in 1990. Today, it seems that we face a further paradigm shift in international cooperation as natural disasters increase in the context of climate change. In such conditions humanitarian aid becomes increasingly important.

In what ways has the attitude of developing countries changed towards Switzerland?

Many developing countries have today confidently stepped onto the world political stage. Former members of the Second and Third Worlds have advanced to become leading forces in the world economy. The political map is also changing as these countries seek recognition of equal rights.

Have the motives behind development assistance changed in the course of time?

Switzerland has a long tradition as a provider of aid. The Red Cross is the symbol par excellence of Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition. The Confederation has supported the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) since the signing of the First Geneva Convention on the wounded in war and the founding of the organisation. The fundamental concern of development assistance remains unchanged: to combat poverty in the world. How best this can be achieved still divides opinions. For some it is above all a question of solidarity with the poor and disadvantaged, while for others economic considerations are first and foremost. At an earlier stage, for many Swiss the overriding motive for development assistance was to combat communism.

How did Switzerland decide on the countries and areas of activity to which it would give priority?

The first practical experiences in the Confederation’s development assistance efforts were a result either of circumstances or of similarity with Switzerland. The assumptions of the first Swiss aid workers were that as an alpine country Swiss know-how could be put to use in other mountainous regions of the world. It is not surprising therefore that Nepal became the prototype Swiss development partner. The concept of «priority country» emerged in the 1970s. The Swiss Federal Act on International Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid of 1976 requires that Swiss aid must above all go to developing countries, regions and population groups. It also sets out the priority areas of concern: the development of rural areas, promotion of agricultural production and nutrition, support for crafts and «cottage industries». The environment was also mentioned as a priority concern.

What conclusions have you reached about these first 50 years of Swiss development assistance? Have the hopes expressed at the time been fulfilled?

The initial hopes of the founders of Swiss development assistance have not been fulfilled. At the time it was thought that the problem of world poverty could be solved in just a few years. But disillusionment was quick to set in. Even at the beginning however it was not entirely a question of combating poverty. It was hoped that development aid would help to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Today, we cannot help but observe that the divide is on the contrary greater than ever. That being so, and much remaining to be done, there is little choice but to continue the good work.

Wer langsam geht, kommt weit – Ein halbes Jahrhundert Schweizer Entwicklungshilfe

Historian René Holenstein, who also works for the SDC, has studied the Agency’s half-century record as a provider of development assistance. His book outlines the SDC’s underlying principles and objectives, its approach to development cooperation, and considers the actors. In addition, reports on the experience of fifteen people who have been involved in Swiss development cooperation give an insight into their personal motivation and, in many different ways, their commitment in various areas of deployment. The author is publishing this book in a personal capacity. 

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