“Does the municipality where I live operate efficiently?” asked Manuel Sager, head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) at the opening of the conference organised jointly with the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). Before answering affirmatively, Mr Sager listed several services available to people living in Switzerland, namely clean tap water, regular waste collection and its disposal in accordance with environmental regulations, rapid issuance of official documents and transparency in tax administration. According to Mr Sager, this is all evidence that strong and autonomous municipalities play a key role in a modern and democratic state and in an open market economy.
In Albania, for example, which has a long history of centralism, only 9% of state revenue is redistributed to local authorities. The other Western Balkan countries also score well below the European average, which is 24%. Switzerland is harnessing its federalist experience to support the decentralisation process in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. It aims, among other things, to contribute to the sustainable strengthening of municipalities. In practical terms, the SDC and SECO support associations of municipalities to help them participate in the dialogue on reforms and influence the decisions made in capital cities. For instance, the project providing support to the Network of Associations of Local Authorities from South- Eastern Europe (NALAS), which includes sixteen national associations of municipalities of the Balkan countries and represents 9,000 local authorities, is an important contribution to regional cooperation and to political stability in the region.
Switzerland also supports an innovative project to fund municipal infrastructure, aiming to ensure the long-term financing and sustainability of municipal services. The Municipal Infrastructure Development Fund (MIDF), which was developed for this purpose and is supported by Switzerland, supports local banks in the development of financing structures for investments in municipal infrastructure. These include investments in water supply, waste management, energy supply, public transport, and building and energy efficiency.
In his remarks about the transitional situation in the Western Balkans, the SDC director, Mr Sager also mentioned the transition to a market economy and the challenge of unemployment, especially among young people, reaching 60% in some areas. “Swiss expertise is reflected in our cooperation programmes, in particular in projects that seek to help vocational education and training respond to job-market demand and to involve the private sector,” he said, citing the example of an SDC programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which helped 875 young people find a job last year.
In her closing speech, State Secretary and SECO Director Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch identified federalism as a source of strong municipalities in Switzerland since “it affords effective protection and inclusion of linguistic, religious and cultural minorities by delegating authority to the individual federal states wherever possible“. “Federalism thereby makes a key contribution towards national cohesion,” she said. In addition, federal systems are also better able to respond to the different needs of their citizens, thus paving the way for greater proximity to the public and increased participation in the political system.
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