"This systemic change has altered the role of Swiss NGOs"

Rahel Bösch, head of the Institutional Partnerships Division at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), talks about the role of Swiss NGOs in international cooperation and explains why the current political debates have little to do with the new programme contributions. A conversation about cooperation with Swiss aid organisations, the background to current political debates, and a long-standing partnership amid systemic change.

Rahel Bösch, head of the SDC's Institutional Partnerships Division, talks about the role of Swiss NGOs in international cooperation. © FDFA

Following an independent evaluation, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has Following an independent evaluation, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has redesigned its system for allocating programme contributions to Swiss non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The new eligibility clearance, application and assessment process for programme contributions means there is now an accessible, clear and transparent allocation system in place for all. At the end of February 2021, contracts amounting to CHF 270 million were signed with a total of 27 Swiss NGO partners and two centres of competence for the 2021–22 period.

Rahel Bösch heads the SDC's Institutional Partnerships Division and, as such, is responsible for partnerships with Swiss NGOs. She talks to us about what programme contributions are and why the SDC's engagement with Swiss NGOs has drawn criticism in political circles, why clear delineation of the organisations' education and awareness-raising efforts in Switzerland is key, and the challenges faced by international cooperation.

In last autumn's referendum campaign, Swiss NGOs became the target of several parliamentary procedural requests, with much debate centring on the financial support provided by the SDC to NGOs. The programme contribution contracts for the 2021–22 period have since been signed and sealed. Does that mean these issues have been sorted out?

There was absolutely nothing to sort out between the SDC and NGOs. It wasn't the SDC's engagement with Swiss NGOs that was being called into question, nor was it the programme contributions per se. It's important to distinguish successful implementation of the new system for allocating programme contributions and the resulting new contracts, from the political debates of recent months. 

But isn't it true that some were questioning the SDC's funding model in relation to Swiss NGOs?

The parliamentary procedural requests concerning Swiss NGOs were related to the role played by these organisations in the campaign on the Responsible Business Initiative. The programme contributions came under fire because one NGO used programme contributions to fund a study related to this initiative. But use of SDC programme contributions for lobbying has always been forbidden. The mistake was recognised and the NGO repaid the funds immediately.

In what way do Swiss NGOs play an important role in Switzerland's international cooperation?

Through their long-standing commitment to reducing poverty and promoting human rights, democracy, peace, security, and sustainable development, Swiss NGOs provide opportunities for people at the local level. They therefore play an important role in achieving sustainable development and delivering emergency aid. They have been reliable partners for decades and not only do they contribute to Switzerland's good reputation in international cooperation, they are also key actors in the implementation of our International Cooperation Strategy and the 2030 Agenda.

NGOs have helped shape Switzerland's development cooperation, and their expertise and strong tradition make them a key partner.

What added value do Swiss NGOs bring?

Swiss NGOs are an important part of civil society here in Switzerland, and in most instances they have had a presence on the ground for years, if not decades. They have built up a strong network of local partner organisations and are familiar with the political and social situations in partner countries. What's more, NGOs have helped shape Switzerland's development cooperation, and their expertise and strong tradition make them a key partner. This is also acknowledged in the new International Cooperation Strategy 2021–24. 

Although the SDC has been working with Swiss NGOs for many years, this collaboration was evaluated and new guidance were drawn up three years ago. Why was that necessary?

The SDC regularly assesses all its programmes and projects by means of evaluations and also considers institutional questions. This includes reviewing institutional partnerships with NGOs. The evaluation highlighted some important trends and recommended clarifying the strategic focus of engagement with NGOs and making the system for allocating programme contributions clearer and more transparent. And this is exactly what we have done in the new guidance for the SDC's engagement with Swiss NGOs. The guidance clarifies the added value, goals and principles of engagement, and sets out the allocation system for programme contributions in a clear and transparent way. This clarity and transparency is more important now than ever. 

How do you explain this growing demand for transparency and accountability?

The NGO landscape and the role of NGOs have fundamentally changed in recent years, and so too has international cooperation as a whole. Our world is marked by multifaceted social, economic and political crises, increasing fragility, migration, famine and growing inequality. As the world becomes more complex, the need for greater accountability and transparency grows.

Whereas in the past you would go to a country to help those in need, now the focus is on promoting systems and cross-sectoral cooperation.

What are the new challenges facing international cooperation – and particularly NGOs?

Now more than ever, the spotlight is on all international cooperation actors. The impact and benefit of cooperation need to be measured and communicated on an ongoing basis. Policymakers and the public want to hear about tangible achievements in international cooperation. This is mainly related to the major shift in international cooperation – away from a project-based approach, towards comprehensive programmes and strengthening of entire systems, such as education and healthcare. Whereas in the past you would go to a country to help those in need, now the focus is on promoting systems and cross-sectoral cooperation. This requires strong partnerships between NGOs, the research community and the private sector, as well as the creation of consortia. At the same time, there is growing competition between NGOs, because increasingly – particularly local NGOs – are able to access international cooperation funds directly. As the respective countries map out their own development, civil society all over the world is becoming stronger and better networked. This systemic change has also altered the role of Swiss NGOs as important providers of know-how and expertise, which requires synergies to be harnessed and strengths to be pooled, including within the NGOs themselves. 

Is the SDC putting extra pressure on Swiss NGOs with the new guidance and contracts?

No, on the contrary: in this highly dynamic and competitive environment, clear guidance and objectives are essential to cooperation. The SDC guidance on engagement with Swiss NGOs and the resulting allocation system provide clarity and transparency, and offer equal access to funding for all NGOs working in international cooperation. For example, smaller or newer NGOs can also access programme contributions for their innovative projects by forming an alliance. 

 A classroom in Afghanistan where girls put their hands up to answer a question.
Modern international cooperation focuses on strengthening entire systems, with education and the promotion of equality playing a key role. © Keystone

What options are available to NGOs to obtain financial support from the SDC?

We distinguish between mandates, which are subject to the Public Procurement Act, and contributions, which can be awarded under the Subsidies Act. These include targeted contributions for specific projects, and programme contributions. 

Why are programme contributions in particular an important support instrument?

Because with programme contributions, Swiss NGOs don't implement a project on behalf of the SDC, they implement their own international programme. This means they have greater freedom to design and structure the programme. Swiss NGOs therefore become creative idea finders, and play an active part in solving current and future challenges. They can be agile and flexible, including in fragile contexts – as shown by their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So Switzerland supports the NGOs' programmes rather than the NGOs themselves?

Exactly. Through programme contributions, the SDC funds the international programmes of an NGO, not the NGO itself. The goal of cooperation with Swiss NGOs is to implement Switzerland's International Cooperation Strategy and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set out in the 2030 Agenda. 

We want these funds to be used in their entirety in developing and transition countries and to make a real impact there.

When allocating the new programme contributions, there was a great deal of talk about the fact that Swiss NGOs are not allowed to fund awareness campaigns. This sparked a media outcry, with accusations of gagging. Does the SDC prohibit NGOs from running information campaigns?

Absolutely not! Swiss NGOs play an important part in providing information to the public and raising awareness. This is a central task of NGOs and is acknowledged as adding value in the guidance. But that doesn't mean that this work should be funded with programme contributions. Various examples show that drawing a clear distinction between awareness campaigns and lobbying is difficult, which is why the new contracts stipulate that SDC programme contributions must not be used for awareness-raising and education activities by NGOs in Switzerland. We want these funds to be used in their entirety in developing and transition countries, and to make a real impact there. To safeguard their independence, many renowned NGOs have always funded these sorts of activities in Switzerland using their own funds or using specifically designated donations, rather than SDC funds. 

Does this mean that Swiss NGOs will be able to continue to work independently?

Of course. Non-governmental organisations are – as the name suggests – non-state entities. They are independent – this is their strength and what sets them apart. This independence is key, including from a financial perspective. The fact that the programme contribution contracts have been signed at the beginning of this year as planned shows that engagement with Swiss NGOs and their independence are appreciated and recognised. We must maintain this independence if we want to work together as autonomous actors on an equal footing to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Interview with Rahel Bösch

Rahel Bösch (Ethnolgin Lic. Phil I) studied ethnology, sociology and philosophy in Munich, Freiburg im Breisgau and Zurich, and subsequently trained as a journalist. In the 1990s, she worked at various Swiss aid agencies in the area of migration and peacebuilding, before moving to the SDC 20 years ago as a governance adviser. As head of international cooperation, she set up the SDC country programme and office in Cambodia, led the regional programme in the Middle East, and was acting head of the office in Albania, among other things, before becoming head of the SDC's Institutional Partnerships Division in 2017. 

The SDC's Swiss NGO partners

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has signed contracts on programme contributions for the 2021–22 period with 27 Swiss NGOs and two centres of competence. The programme contributions amount to a total of CHF 270 million. The 27 Swiss NGO partners are made up of large Swiss NGOs, alliances, umbrella organisations and cantonal federations – ten large Swiss NGOs, seven NGO alliances with a total of 17 NGOs, three umbrella organisations with 21 organisations, and seven cantonal federations.

More on the SDC's programme contributions

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