"We need new ways of working on the ground"

Swiss rescue workers went to Japan in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake AFP

With one crisis following another, Switzerland wants aid workers to have access to victims from all sides. But Martin Dahinden, head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), says the situation is increasingly difficult.

This content was published on May 8, 2012 - 11:00

Thanks to its neutrality and the fact that it has long been home to humanitarian organisations, Switzerland is in a position to both help the world's populations who are most in need, and ensure that this help is not subject to pressure from political agendas or military conflicts, says Dahinden. How is Swiss humanitarian aid adapting to a world where it seems the number of crises keeps on rising?

Martin Dahinden: For the past few years, we've seen an upswing in the number of both environmental crises [drought, floods, desertification] due in no small part to the effects of climate change, as well as crises linked to armed conflicts. 

The ability of Swiss humanitarian aid to react to each and every crisis is very limited. All the more so as crisis situations seem to be lasting longer and longer. Take for example the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region. In these cases and others, Switzerland has to work in cooperation with other partners.

We have to find new ways of working on the ground, of improving the humanitarian situation, without having to provide food, medicine or basic assistance over a long period. So does that mean that Swiss humanitarian aid should be more focused on priority areas?

M.D.: When it comes to humanitarian aid the exact geographic zone of need is not defined ahead of time. We take our cue from the needs of the affected population, drawing on whatever of our resources are available in that situation. But I've noticed an erosion in the line traditionally drawn between humanitarian aid and development activities in the past few years. We increasingly do both at the same time.

Refugees are a striking example of this. When you are dealing with a displaced population, that may have moved or been moved for a long time, you need to set up schools, medical centres, which are typically tools of developmental aid. In Switzerland, humanitarian aid and development activities are organised by the same agency. Not many countries have a tool like that, which helps ensure better coordination of aid. Does Switzerland provide aid to countries or places where other nations aren't welcome?

M.D.: Our specificity is that we defend certain values - notably humanitarian aid should be neutral and not politicised. We do not think humanitarian aid should be used for political or military goals.

Switzerland can make a strong point this way, even if it's a minority view in today's world.

We are fighting to preserve a humanitarian space that gives us access to all populations. It was the case in Colombia and more recently in Libya, where Switzerland was able to get access due to the absence of a political agenda. 

If there is one area where Switzerland can use its tradition and neutrality to good effect, it's in campaigning for the rights of people who've been displaced for reasons not linked to armed conflict. For example climate refugees. At the moment, there's no international treaty governing these refugees, and that must change. Are Swiss aid personnel also affected by the increase in violence towards medical and humanitarian workers?

M.D.: Unfortunately our humanitarian workers are regularly victims of violations of the rules concerning them. There is less and less respect for the signs of the Red Cross and the United Nations. In many conflicts humanitarian workers often have to deal with armed groups, who don't want to govern the country, but who do control a certain area without sticking to rules established by the international community. What can be done to improve this situation?

M.D.: We have to raise awareness of this at the highest levels. In the first instance, states must be committed to respecting this humanitarian space, as well as the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian actors. Are you in favour of humanitarian interventions in emergency situations?

A humanitarian intervention means the use of military personnel in order to reach a humanitarian objective. The debate flared up about a decade ago, and the conflicts in Syria or Libya continue to fuel it. Personally, I'm not in favour. I prefer the principle of protection, which the United Nations adopted in 2005. States must protect their citizens from atrocities, while the international community has a responsibility to intervene if these states fail in their duty to protect.

Swiss humanitarian aid

The Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit is part of the SDC. It provides humanitarian aid to those directly in need after natural disasters and armed conflicts, and can draw on a pool of 700 experts, divided into various professional groups according to their skills.

The unit also supports other humanitarian organisations in their mission to prevent and resolve conflicts. Aid is mainly targeted at organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Programme, or the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees.

Humanitarian aid is provided as food, financial donations, or by dispatching experts to provide help on the ground. In 2010, the Swiss government spent SFr315 million ($346 million), around 20% of the SDC's budget, on humanitarian aid.

On the 2012 Swiss Humanitarian Day (March 23), Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said the Swiss presence on the ground and alongside its partners should be reinforced. 

He also said the issues surrounding prevention and early warning mechanisms for climate disasters should be discussed at the Rio+20 meeting later in 2012.

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Martin Dahinden

Martin Dahinden was born in 1955, and took over the position as head of the SDC in 2008.

His previous post was as head of the foreign ministry’s Corporate Management section.

From 2000 to 2004 he had been director of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining.

He joined the diplomatic service in 1987. During his career, he held posts in Geneva, Paris, Nigeria and New York.

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