Martin Dahinden, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation chief. Photo by: European Union

Switzerland is gearing up for major aid reform: In the coming months, parliament is expected to vote on a multi-year proposal to modernize the country’s development cooperation.

Details are still being finalized, but Martin Dahinden gave Devex a sneak peak in December.

As director-general of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, which celebrated its golden jubilee last year, Dahinden oversees an annual budget of CHF1.70 billion as well as some 1,600 employees, including 1,000 local hires in partner countries. In 2010, more than CHF1 billion went to development cooperation and approximately CHF314 million to humanitarian aid; additional funds were used to support the Swiss NGO sector as well as EU enlargement programs and countries in Eastern Europe.

Switzerland’s goal is to spend 0.5 percent of gross national income on official development assistance by 2015, Dahinden said. The agency will focus more on fragile states and relief-to-development schemes, as well as public-private partnerships and multilateral efforts to reform partner countries’ fiscal systems, to better enable developing countries to raise their own resources.

“The partner countries are as much responsible for the results as the donor countries are,” Dahinden told Devex. “If we have success or not with our programs, it only partially depends on ourselves, it depends on the others, and therefore it’s important that partner countries have the right ownership.”

Here are excerpts from our interview with Martin Dahinden.

What are the cornerstones of the aid reform you’re preparing right now?

Next year, the Swiss government will submit a new bill to parliament – a four-year bill – with the future orientation of our international cooperation. Global issues will play a more important role, such as climate change, health, migration, water and food security. These are five topics where we will develop a new kind of approach mixing innovative solutions with policy-influencing.

The second policy change is a stronger focus on fragile and conflict contexts. The 2010 U.N. Summit on the Millennium Development Goals revealed that in fragile and conflict contexts, almost none of the MDGs have been achieved. Therefore, SDC will put more emphasis on those contexts and increase related spending by approximately 15 percent. This is a major challenge for the institution and entails also more risk.


You mentioned about prioritizing fragile countries. Will there be changes to your roster of aid-recipient nations?

We have moved out of a series of countries a couple of years ago. It is not the intention to reduce the number of priority countries. On the other side, we are planning to start with programs in Haiti and the Horn of Africa, both highly difficult contexts.

About the Horn of Africa: What lessons should be learned from the ongoing crisis there?

At the Horn of Africa, we have carried out humanitarian operations for 20 years. But we were unable to change the conditions to the better. It is, in this context, of the utmost importance to address the causes of the recurrent humanitarian crisis, in particular structural food insecurity, drought and conflict. Therefore, we need to work with development instruments that have more medium- and long-term perspectives, even though the situation might remain typically humanitarian. This, I think, is the lesson learned by most agencies.

So, a stronger link between humanitarian relief and development.

Exactly. In the old days, humanitarian and development actions were separate. Now, we have to bring them together, and to strengthen their linkages.

SDC has the advantage that humanitarian aid and development cooperation are under the same roof. This is not the case in every country. For me it is easier to combine the humanitarian and development measures. But, much work is still to be done.

You stressed that one of the challenges in development work is the need to adapt to new circumstances. What does this mean in practice, at the operational level, in the implementation of your programs?

It is a major management challenge. A year ago, we didn’t know what happened in North Africa, and then the whole crisis unfolded. We had to react quickly in and around Libya with humanitarian aid. And then, we had to implement the Swiss government decision to support the North African countries in other areas than humanitarian aid. This means, of course, adaptation of planning, re-affectation of staff and funding, starting collaboration with new partners. This is part of our “daily business.”

Talk about staffing: How will the planned reforms affect hiring?

Basically, most of the people working in the international cooperation [are] specialists in change, and this is something we can build on. This being said, of course, according to the geographical and thematic contexts, adjustments are necessary. We will definitively need more people who are in a position to work in very difficult contexts, fragile and conflict

What qualities should those who work in such challenging contexts bring to the job?

Someone working in Afghanistan or at the Horn of Africa needs to be stress-resistant, needs to be a person who is extremely flexible. But there is also a need for a special kind of working methodology: a strong analysis capacity to understand the sociopolitical differences, capability for conflict-sensitive project management that enables you to continue with work planning despite, perhaps, radical changes in the political and security context. There are elements you can learn but the right attitude is essential.

Making solid and effective results in international cooperation depends also on the capacity of an agency to combine operational work with policy influencing and policy shaping. A successful agency needs a substantial number of staff with competence to build the bridge.

What is your approach to strengthening civil society in partner countries?

There are many layers. First, cooperation with civil society must be strengthened. Second, it is important to secure, and, if need be, to widen the space for civil society activities in any given country.

These are issues we recently put emphasis on at the Busan Conference on Aid Effectiveness. In the early days of the Paris Declaration, the whole focus was on the alignment with the central government and its policies. For us, the understanding was always much broader. It also included the legislative branch or local government. And, of course, the alignment included civil society. 

How will the global agreement reached in Busan on aid effectiveness change the way in which you work, from project design to management and reporting?

It will. I can point out three elements. One is, of course, the closer involvement of partners, partner institutions, in many cases including civil society, in the whole design and in the formulation of the content of the activity.

The second issue is information and transparency. We are not providing enough information in the countries where we are active. We are providing a lot of information to the parliaments in donor countries, to our domestic control organs, but not so much to the partners.

The third issue is the stronger focus on development results right from the beginning of every activity.

About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.