Citizens can turn good opportunities into a life changing-experience

Article, 20.10.2020

Read about the priorites of the Swiss Cooperation Programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina, transfer of the Swiss know-how and experience through the Swiss supported projects in the country, importance of the active participation of citizens in the development of their local communities, and her personal belief that a society can only advance if women and men are equally represented in political life and at all levels of government in the interview with Barbara Dätwyler Scheuer, Director of Cooperation at the Embassy of Switzerland in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for the Federal News Agency FENA.

Barbara Dätwyler Scheuer, Director of Cooperation at the Swiss Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Barbara Dätwyler Scheuer, Director of Cooperation at the Swiss Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina © SDC

Switzerland boasts long-term cooperation with BiH. In your view, what makes this engagement special?

First, there’s our partnership approach. We do not want to be simply perceived as donors, but as development partners. We bring people and institutions together, and we do this throughout the country. Second, we focus on results. Over the past three years, our projects have reached 1 million citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina who now enjoy improved infrastructure and public services. And third, our long-term commitment. Swiss projects often run for a period of up to 12 years. Real change cannot be achieved overnight.

Since 1995, Switzerland has provided over BAM 1 billion to Bosnia and Herzegovina. This money was invested in concrete development projects to improve the lives of people and to support reforms.


Can you tell us more about your priorities?

In everything that we do, our ultimate goal is to give people – young people, in particular – reasons to stay and live a good life in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Through our cooperation, we focus on three priority areas where reforms, innovation and systemic changes are greatly needed to improve the lives of citizens in the country. These include health, the economy and employment, democratic governance, municipal services and justice. Our support is, of course, aligned with the country’s priorities and the EU pre-accession process.


Switzerland has a lot to share with BiH. Are you using Swiss know-how, expertise and experience as you engage with Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Yes, we have a lot to share! And we are willing to share even more. I think it is fair to say that the prosperity and stability of Switzerland owes much to its rule of law, direct democracy, decentralised administrations and accountability. Our political system ensures that citizens have their say. Another strength of the country and its economy is our vocational education and training system, which is one of the reasons why Switzerland has a very low unemployment rate. In all these areas, the Embassy of Switzerland makes efforts to share good practices with interested actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


How do you do this?

We always include Swiss expertise in our development projects. Swiss prosecutors from Zürich Canton, medical staff from different hospitals in Switzerland, experts in vocational education, and many others, bring Swiss experience and know-how to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We also organise exchange visits for representatives of our two countries. Two such visits took place in recent years between the Swiss Canton of Glarus and the Canton of Bosna-Podrinje and between the Cantons of Graubünden and Una-Sana in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Switzerland has more than 2,000 municipalities and 26 cantons. Over the years, the cantons have established mechanisms whereby they exchange their best practices across the health, transport and education sectors. They share expertise and good ideas on how to solve complex problems – in other words, they don’t reinvent the wheel! Also, given the fact that Swiss cantons are fairly small (like in BiH), this inter-cantonal exchange paves the way for concrete collaboration when providing public services. The same goes for collaboration between municipalities. We hope that this will inspire local authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we stand ready to support more exchanges of this kind!


This leads us to the topic of Swiss engagement at the local level. Can you tell us more about Switzerland’s engagement to support democratic local governance in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Good governance is the cornerstone of Swiss engagement across the globe. What can sometimes sound like a complex and academic term simply refers to the way in which a state is organised, how public duties are carried out, and the manner in which state power is exercised, legitimised and accountable to the citizens. Today there is a consensus that democratic governance is a precondition for a country’s development and stability.

Switzerland invests a lot in Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to help strengthen local administration and to build modern and responsive local authorities. 80% percent of all municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, all cantons and both entities have designed and implemented their development strategies with Swiss support. The ultimate goal is to provide quality services to citizens, improve their living conditions and enhance their sense of security. Over the past three years, 115,000 citizens in 23,000 households have benefitted from improved water supply and sanitary conditions. Many more people will benefit from similar initiatives in the future.


What is the role of citizens in these initiatives?

Citizens know best what they really need. Therefore, it is very important that they become active participants in the development of their local community, that they voice their concerns and needs directly, engage in dialogue and ask for more transparency. This is what we aim for in all Swiss-supported projects.


Have you been successful?

Yes! We are proud to say that citizens in municipalities across the country have started to speak out and identify priorities by engaging with the municipal administrations, and the municipalities have been ready to include these priorities into their municipal plans and budgets. 620 such priorities have been taken into consideration in 24 municipalities over the past three years. These included better street lighting, for example, the reconstruction of schools and playgrounds, access to quality water, or improvements to bus stations and cinemas.

We also support the reform and revitalisation of local communities (mjesne zajednice, MZ). It is at the neighbourhood level that the real lives of citizens play out. The municipality of Jablanica, for example, has organised public discussions in each of its nine MZs, which allowed the citizens to be actively involved in the process of municipal budgeting. One of the priorities identified by the citizens was the improvement of services at the municipality’s retirement home for elderly citizens.

Swiss-supported projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina also promote several tools which facilitate communication between citizens and governments, including e-governance.

This year have launched an online video campaign under the motto “We Press Forward”. One of these movies shows Swiss engagement that is aimed at improving local governance and municipal services in the country. This animated movie shows how citizens can turn good opportunities into a life changing-experience. Progress is possible if citizens actively engage to support the well-being of their neighbourhood and the entire community. We invite you to watch the movie on the Embassy’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.


What are the main challenges you see when it comes to local governance?

Firstly, a coherent policy approach for local governance at the national level is lacking. Today, there are differences in the ways local governments are organised in FBiH, RS and BD. In FBiH, the absence of a unified legal framework for local governance exacerbates the problem with the fact that competencies between entities, cantons and municipalities are not clearly defined. This, of course, has an impact on revenues for municipalities. There is a pressing need for stronger municipalities and cities, with clear competencies being defined at all levels, along with a robust fiscal system. We urge authorities to engage more around these issues, and to give local governments the role that they deserve in the new socio-economic reform agenda. The Associations of Municipalities and Cities in both entities are key partners who can convey the voices of local authorities so that their concerns are placed on the higher policy agenda, and their voices must be heard.

Secondly, demographics: It is crucial to build a planning system that takes into account the trends within the current context, such as depopulation. Some estimates say that close to 150,000 people have left the country over the past year. The significant population decrease seen in municipalities throughout the country leaves local governments with the major challenge of how to organise and finance public service delivery.

Thirdly, there is a need for more coordination, not only between the governments and the international community, but also among development partners. We have made the first step by transparently mapping all ongoing country-wide projects supported by the Swiss Government on our online maps SwissinBiH and SvicarskauBiH. It’s a valuable source of information for all citizens. We have also provided support for an online map Local Governance in BiH which outlines all the donor-supported local governance projects. A total of 39, to be exact. Both maps are regularly updated with new information.


In your view, how will COVID-19 affect local governments?

There might be a risk that the revenues of municipalities will decrease as a consequence of the economic crisis, which means that there will be fewer funds available for public services. Thus, it will be even more important than before that we support the Associations of Municipalities and Cities in their push for local governance reforms, and that municipalities strategically invest available funds in the services prioritised by citizens. Switzerland will stay engaged in this regard. There is also a risk that the number of underdeveloped municipalities will increase. New programmes for socially vulnerable groups will have to be established and they will need more support from municipalities.


What would you like to share with us as we conclude this interview?

The good news is that we will continue to cooperate with Bosnia and Herzegovina in the years to come. We are currently preparing our new Swiss Cooperation Programme for 2021-2024. Switzerland plans to invest another BAM 130 million. We will continue to follow results, and we will only work with agents of change, those who are willing to perform and move forward.

The municipal elections are approaching. We hope that citizens will participate in them. If you want change, you need to go and vote! We also hope that we will see more female candidates, and that people will vote for them. I, myself, am deeply convinced that a society can only advance if women and men are equally represented in political life and at all levels of government.