Sixty decades of adaptability: Switzerland's international cooperation

The Federal Council appointed its first delegate for development cooperation in 1961. To mark the 60th anniversary of Switzerland's international cooperation, the SDC is looking back on its achievements, reviewing current challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change, and casting an eye on the future. The SDC has continually adapted its activities to meet new challenges over its 60-year history – which is why it remains a credible actor for international cooperation today.

The slogan "'helping others to help themselves", established in the 1960s, is still valid for international cooperation today. © SDC

The global population has more than doubled in the past 60 years, growing from 3.07 to 7.87 billion people. Globalisation has led to a dramatic increase in the interconnectedness of the economy, politics, culture and communication. Transformations are currently taking place as part of the digital revolution which will shape societies and cultures around the world to an unprecedented degree. This means that even after 60 years, Switzerland's international cooperation is still confronted with complex challenges despite the tremendous progress it has achieved.


The spread of the novel coronavirus required a rapid response from Switzerland's international cooperation. The crisis has had a particularly strong impact on developing countries, where many education systems faced problems even before COVID-19, such as shortcomings in teaching quality and shortages in capacity and infrastructure. The closure of schools in SDC partner countries due to COVID-19 has worsened the long-term social and economic prospects of local populations.

Children affected may not get access to school, fail to obtain qualifications and consequently miss the opportunity to embark on careers. Switzerland implemented measures quickly to mitigate the economic, social and health impact of the crisis and to prevent progress made on development cooperation from being jeopardised. It is providing emergency humanitarian aid, supporting international actions and gearing current projects and development programmes specifically towards the management of COVID-19. 


Women are particularly affected by poverty: due to discriminatory laws and social norms, they account for around 70% of people living in poverty. In Benin, for example, they are deprived at the institutional level of inheritance rights to their deceased husband's land. As women in Benin have low incomes, they have little chance of obtaining loans to purchase the land after their husband's death. In a society dominated by agriculture, women are left with few opportunities.

Climate change

Worsening climate change is having a particularly strong impact in places where livelihoods are directly dependent on natural resources. Its effects exacerbate poverty, hunger and migratory movements. Livestock farmers in Ethiopia, for example, are being hit hard. Climatic changes have been having a major impact on pastureland, water resources and livestock there for 40 years. Towards the end of the 1990s, droughts increased and rainfall became less frequent. This has resulted in a lack of milk, butter and other animal-based products. A similar picture can be observed around the world. 

Forced Displacement and Migration

There are currently over 70 million displaced people around the world as a result of armed conflicts, persecution, increasing authoritarianism, ongoing gender-based violence and human rights abuses. Swiss international cooperation aims to reduce the causes of displacement and irregular migration and to create long-term prospects locally. 

Switzerland's international cooperation continues to play a vital role in combating these developments, and it is crucial that it remain agile, efficient and effective. This was illustrated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Switzerland's flexible international cooperation strategy allowed it to respond in a rapid and targeted manner to the needs of people around the world.

Leveraging trends and partnerships for greater impact

Swiss international cooperation not only adapts but also follows current trends in a forward-looking way to increase its efficiency and impact. 

We've adapted international cooperation to trends and have developed new methods for combating poverty.
Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis

"We've adapted international cooperation to trends and have developed new methods for combating poverty. By focusing on the four priorities of creating jobs, combating climate change, reducing irregular migration and promoting good governance, we aim to contribute towards increasing security and prosperity in developing countries – and therefore also at home," said Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, highlighting the importance of international cooperation today.

New technologies play a key role in this respect. For example, universal access to online information and mobile finance and health apps also have a positive effect on the political, social and economic development of countries.

Science and private sector

The SDC's deployment of new technologies in international cooperation relies on collaborations with academia and the private sector. The private sector's innovation potential is key to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda. A good example of this kind of partnership is the collaboration with 'Medicines for Malaria Venture' (MMV) from Geneva. The combination of MMV's medical expertise and the SDC's specialist knowledge that has existed since 1999 enabled research to be carried out to produce an affordable malaria drug which has been used over 250 million times in more than 50 countries to date.


An instructor shows a group of men wearing hard hats how plastic pipes are processed.
The private sector plays a vitally important role with job creation being a key focus. © Sudokkho

The local private sector also plays a vitally important role as the economic backbone of industrial and developing nations, with job creation being a key focus. In Kosovo, as in other places, the public sector has little leeway to directly create new private-sector jobs. This is why the SDC – in cooperation with Kosovan SMEs – is supporting a project concerning food and tourism. This aims to improve agricultural productivity and to raise Kosovo's profile as a destination for summer and winter tourism. The further development of these sectors would automatically create more jobs and fresh prospects for the local population.

60 years of self-help assistance

In the 1960s, people still believed that the problem of world poverty could be solved within a few years! Their hopes were founded on the fact that Europe was able to rebuild relatively rapidly after the war. Disenchantment soon set in, however, and the expectations of that founding generation of development aid remained unfulfilled. In fact, the SDC's areas of activity have actually become more complex over the decades.

International trends, such as the protection of the environment, have had a lasting impact on Switzerland's international cooperation. © SDC

The SDC's history is closely intertwined with global events, and it is crucial that it remain adaptable. Swiss development cooperation – known as technical assistance at the time – got off the ground immediately after the end of the Second World War when much of Europe lay in ruins. Switzerland also played its part in the reconstruction, but it was not until the 1950s that it extended its activities beyond European borders. Swiss development cooperation first took shape when the SDC's predecessor organisation, the Technical Cooperation Service, was incorporated into the Federal Political Department (now the FDFA) and the first Delegate for Technical Cooperation was appointed by the Federal Council on 17 March 1961. It has subsequently established itself under the motto 'helping others to help themselves' – a motto which continues to apply today.

Adaptation to trends

Just like in fashion, there are also trends in development cooperation. The SDC's activities have been shaped by a number of these over the decades, including the debt crisis in developing nations after the global depression and oil price shock in the 1970s, the environmental movement and emergence of the concept of sustainability in the 1980s, and the independence of former Soviet states after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

1960s: modernisation

The post-war period in Europe was marked by economic growth and technical innovation. The idea of modernisation dominated thinking on development in the 1960s. At that time, development aid assumed that underdevelopment was the result of countries lagging behind technically and economically. Supporting developing countries through modernisation in these areas was the instrument of choice for development cooperation then. During this period, Swiss development aid established an international reputation for itself with a series of innovative technical projects. A good example is the construction of suspension bridges in Nepal. Working under the most basic conditions, Swiss engineers built these structures together with the Nepalese. They lived in tents or makeshift accommodation and all the building materials had to be transported in from great distances away. These pioneering projects had a long-term effect. 

1973: the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit

The Federal Council laid the foundation for the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit in 1971. After an appeal made by the Federal Administration in 1973, around 1,000 volunteers were trained for international relief efforts in the event of disasters. Ninety-nine members of the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit were deployed for the first time in September 1974 in the drought and hunger-hit region of the Lake Chad basin. During the 1970s, humanitarian aid developed into a key institution for Switzerland and enjoyed great public support.

1980s: the concept of sustainability

The use of nuclear power, the destruction of the rainforests and other natural habitats, and the realisation that natural resources are finite were reflected in Swiss development cooperation during the 1980s. A groundbreaking report commissioned by the UN, known as the Brundtland Report, first outlined the concept of sustainability.

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The Brundtlandt Report

The notion that good management of resources and nature plays a decisive role in development was also embraced by Swiss development cooperation. Since the 1990s all new projects have been designed to include environmental protection in all planning dimensions. The transversal issues of gender equality and good governance were also included later.

1991: collapse of the Soviet Union

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the reunification of Germany – which had been divided since 1945 – in October 1990, and the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 were all signs of unprecedented political upheaval in Europe. Twenty-eight states with a combined population of 429 million emerged from this radical transformation. Switzerland responded quickly to the political changes in the east and was one of the first countries to carry out activities in Eastern Europe. Switzerland's official aid here began after the upheaval, primarily through food aid and the supply of milk and cheese. The priorities have now shifted to strengthening human rights and democracy by establishing citizen-oriented institutions based on the rule of law and by promoting economic and social development and the sustainable use of natural resources. 

From 2000: common Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2000, 189 member states of the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals. They focus on combating extreme poverty which was now defined not just by low income, but also a lack of opportunities and prospects. The Millennium Goals were to be achieved by 2015. On 1 January 2016, the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) replaced the Millennium Development Goals. In contrast to the latter, the 2030 Agenda applies to all states and not just developing countries. Switzerland's current International Cooperation Strategy 2021–24 – the point of reference for all SDC activities – is also aligned with the 2030 Agenda.

A much sought-after actor worldwide

Switzerland is a credible actor in alleviating need and poverty worldwide. © SDC

International cooperation is part of Switzerland's humanitarian tradition. In the past, it has stood out by constantly adapting to historical, civil society and political conditions in various contexts. This explains why the knowledge and experience Switzerland has acquired in the field of international cooperation over the past 60 years remains in great demand today. It is also this expertise that makes Switzerland a credible actor to alleviate need and poverty worldwide, improve respect for human rights, promote democracy and protect the environment.

In order for the SDC to continue achieving its goals in future, Director General Patricia Danzi wants to ensure it continues adapting to international political realities, becomes even more interconnected, measures the impact of its work more effectively, and involves its partners in developing countries even more closely.

A strategic compass for the next four years

Switzerland's international cooperation has been adapting to global events for 60 years – something that is also evident in the latest International Cooperation Strategy 2021–24.

At the end of January 2020, after analysing the current state of the world and evaluating the trends that could shape the future, the Federal Council published its Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23, setting out its overarching objectives.

Derived from the Foreign Policy Strategy, the International Cooperation Strategy pursues four objectives in four priority regions. With the focus on Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Central, South and South-East Asia, the strategy increases international cooperation's impact and efficiency. Its four equally important goals, which are set out below, contribute towards poverty reduction and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda:

  • Creating decent jobs locally
  • Combating climate change
  • Reducing the causes of displacement and irregular migration
  • Working to ensure the rule of law

The thematic strategies, such as the International Cooperation Strategy, supplement the geographical strategies, like the FDFA's Sub-Saharan Africa or MENA strategies. They are aligned with one another, which ensures that Switzerland's foreign policy activities are more effective, avoids any overlaps and harnesses synergies between the various federal offices involved and external partners.

The interaction between strategies is important to ensure Switzerland implements its foreign policy in a coordinated way in all regions of the world and presents a coherent and unified image.

More about the cascading strategy of Swiss foreign policy

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