SDC and Swiss NGOs: trouble in paradise?

The cooperation with Swiss NGOs is of great importance to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). In a guest article published in a variety of Swiss newspapers, SDC Director-General Patricia Danzi describes the role Swiss non-governmental organisations play in achieving the development goals, why a clear allocation of programme contributions is important and a clear demarcation from political communication is key.

Portrait of Patricia Danzi, Director of the SDC

“As their name suggests, NGOs are non-governmental organisations and that supposes independence, including financial independence.” – Guest article by SDC Director-General Patricia Danzi on the partnership with Swiss non-governmental organisations in development cooperation. © FDFA

Swiss non-governmental organisations (NGOs) enjoy a high reputation with the population. The Covid-19 crisis in particular has once again highlighted this connection of solidarity, with 2020 proving to be a record fundraising year for many NGOs. The Swiss people relate readily to NGOs' work and it often leads to widespread debate. We are pleased that's the case, because their work is important, especially in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a cornerstone of Switzerland's international cooperation. It is vital that in all the discussions we don't lose sight of our overarching goals: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the global fight against poverty.

To achieve such ambitious goals, the SDC has always relied on partnerships with Swiss NGOs. They bring with them a long tradition – not least in the partner countries themselves. They are familiar with the situation on the ground, know the needs of the population and have worked with local actors for many years. In addition, NGOs have sound expertise and benefit from a high level of credibility at home and abroad. In this way, they not only put a face to Switzerland's name abroad, but they also bring the experiences of people in the partner countries home to Switzerland. They make sure that Swiss development cooperation has an impact on the ground and that it is visible back home.

Informing the Swiss population about important development cooperation issues has therefore always been part of the portfolio of Swiss NGOs. They bring issues to the fore in the political arena and, precisely because they are not governmental in nature, can address problems differently. However, the fact that this information work can also become a political pawn was demonstrated last autumn, when a mistake was made in the context of the corporate responsibility initiative and federal funds were used for political lobbying purposes. That is of course not allowed. The error was detected rapidly and the money swiftly paid back. However, it opened the door to politicising the valuable and important joint efforts in development cooperation, which is unfortunate.

So where do we go from here? As part of its new system of allocating programme contributions, the SDC has decided that information and awareness-raising work in Switzerland can no longer be financed with SDC programme contributions, primarily in order to create clarity. NGOs still have the possibility to carry out information campaigns in Switzerland, only no longer with federal government funding. It is also important to state that no funding has been cut – quite the contrary! Programme contributions have been increased to CHF 270 million for 2021/22.

For NGOs, this means that they can apply for funding for a portion of their budget in the area of international project work through SDC programme contributions, but these funds must flow entirely into international projects. How NGOs use their remaining budget and in which thematic areas they are active is up to them and does not exclude information and awareness-raising activities. As their name suggests, NGOs are non-governmental organisations and that supposes independence from the State, including financial independence. Some prominent NGOs have therefore not been using SDC programme contributions for information activities in Switzerland for years and are well aware of the dilemma.

Involvement in domestic policy discussions is a common characteristic of Swiss NGOs, and it helps to ensure that we regularly discuss issues relevant to development. And that also includes common rules by which all have to play. The contracts for the allocation of programme contributions are intended to make those rules transparent and, above all, to create clarity – for the SDC as donor, for the NGOs as recipients of the contributions, for Parliament and also for the Swiss population. So that together we can ensure that our funding goes where we want it to go: to the people in need.

Article published in the daily newspapers Le Temps and Corriere del Ticino, on Friday, 19 February 2021. 

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