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Charity chief sees aid as obvious gesture

Peter Niggli has been director of Alliance Sud since 1998 swissinfo.ch

Peter Niggli, head of Alliance Sud, the Swiss Alliance of Development Organisations, tells swissinfo a dose of realism is needed in the aid debate.

This content was published on May 11, 2008 - 10:03

Discussion has recently focused on the amount of official Swiss development funding. Some, such as Alliance Sud, argue it is too low but others – especially to the right of the political spectrum – say it is too high.

Switzerland gave 0.37 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in aid in 2007, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

swissinfo: When did you last visit a development aid project?

Peter Niggli: I went to southern Sudan at the beginning of 2007. I followed the Sudan conflict 20 years ago when I was a journalist. It was the first time I had been back to the country since the peace deal was signed.

During the visit I saw the work by the Catholic Church – the only more or less autonomous institution during the war – to help guarantee the population a minimum chance of survival.

These were modest health services, a bit of education and attempts to improve food safety. Small but impressive projects, financed among others, by Caritas Switzerland.

swissinfo: Development aid to Africa has attracted strong criticism in recent years.

P.N.: There have been some misunderstandings. Lots of people think that most aid has gone to Africa, but historically that's not the case. Huge sums of money have gone to southeastern Asian countries, allies of the United States and supported as bastions against communist China and the former Soviet Union.

The second misunderstanding comes from this statement: "you've invested a lot of money but Africa is still very poor and perhaps even worse off than before". However, nobody can tell whether without this aid the situation would not be even worse.

swissinfo: It is possible to prove the positive effects of development aid?

P.N.: There have been proven good results in education. Primary education is widespread in all developing countries – and in Africa in particular – thanks in part to cooperation.

There has been important success in health. Some diseases have been eradicated thanks to vaccination campaigns and hygiene measures over the past 50 years.

Help has been given to smallholders to stabilise their land, by improving yield and selling products on local markets. In many cases these processes have, however, only been local or regional because funds are limited.

swissinfo: Why has criticism of development aid increased right now?

P.N.: Criticism of development aid occurs regularly. This new wave has come with the discussion on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, especially when it became clear that many western countries were really going to commit themselves. The objective was clear: stop financial aid or at least reduce it.

Public development aid is an instrument of industrialised states' foreign policy. In the history of cooperation, industrialised nations have always oscillated between providing funds to respond to the real development needs of the countries they are helping or exploiting these funds for their political and economic interests.

In this sense, criticism of development aid is legitimate. But significantly, the keenest critics of international cooperation have kept quiet about this type of exploitation.

swissinfo: What can really be expected of development aid?

P.N.: Development aid exists because we live in a world in which a small island of rich countries is surrounded by a sea of poverty. This kind of difference is intolerable in the long term. For me it's an obvious gesture of small redistribution.

What development aid cannot do is ensure that poor countries have reasonable governments which promote good economic policy. It can only operate in a complementary way. It can support the efforts of these governments and can make an effort to get aid directly to the poor and improve their conditions a bit.

Development aid does not mean that industrialised countries can lift whole countries out of poverty. We don't have the funds to do that. You have to keep the proportions in mind. In the recent financial crisis $1,000 billion were lost in a very short time. Africa has received $0.6 billion over 50 years.

swissinfo: You have previously stressed the importance of the UN development aid goals. Are these not a bit vague?

P.N.: Only the eighth goal, which defines the obligations of industrialised nations, is vague. The other seven are formulated fairly clearly. The aim is to halve the number of people living on less than one dollar a day by 2015, to have as many girls in secondary school as boys and so on.

The goals call for more investment in some public sectors, such as health, school and water provision. For us these goals represent progress because they have all countries' support and because they create pressure.

swissinfo: Alliance Sud has launched a campaign for Swiss development aid to be raised to 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2015. Is there any chance of success on a political level?

P.N.: Parliament will discuss the four-year credit line for development aid in summer and autumn. This should also involve consideration of the financial side in the medium term.

I think that our campaign [with 18,000 public signatures] has achieved a goal. Nobody now talks about reducing the cooperation budget. When he was still in office Christoph Blocher [former justice minister from the rightwing Swiss People's Party] wanted to reduce it by 30 per cent. But it's still open as to whether there'll be a majority in favour of increasing it in parliament.

swissinfo-interview: Andrea Tognina

Peter Niggli

Born in 1950, Niggli has been director of Alliance Sud since 1998. The group includes Swissaid, Catholic Lenten Fund, Bread for All, Helvetas, Caritas and Swiss Interchurch Aid.

He has written two books on development aid. "After globalisation, development aid in the 21st century" appeared in 2005. His latest is in German and is called "The controversy over development aid. More – but the right thing – should be done."

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