Make DEZA great again: why the renewal of Swiss aid needs to start at home


The current debate about the future of Switzerland’s international development policy misses a key point. The main agency in charge of foreign aid, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation or SDC, runs the risk of becoming a toothless bureaucracy. Swiss foreign aid needs renewed political leadership, proper branding and more support from diplomats.


Much ink has been spilled about Switzerland’s new international development policy. Minister of Foreign Affairs Ignazio Cassis proposes a geographic concentration of Swiss aid. He wants a more prominent role for the private sector and to tie foreign aid to migration concerns. So far debates on Switzerland’s foreign aid have followed predictable patterns. Political parties and organizations on the left favor more aid, multilateralism and more emphasis on tackling climate change. Conservatives and nationalists want Switzerland to give less aid, they prefer bilateral action and ask for greater emphasis on Swiss and business interests.

Regrettably, both sides miss a key point. Swiss aid is only as good as the organization that implements it. This is the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC), popularly known as DEZA or DDC in German and French respectively. In the first forty years of its existence SDC grew into a professional agency that funds and implements development and humanitarian projects globally. The agency reached its peak under director Walter Fust, a powerful bureaucrat who made sure that aid budgets grew and SDC’s interests had political backing during his tenure (1993-2008).

However, neither diplomats nor politicians were happy with what they saw as an overreach of SDC. Ever since Micheline Calmy-Rey took over the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2003 successive foreign ministers have reined in SDC. They aligned development assistance with broader foreign policy goals, reduced SDC’s thematic expertise and integrated aid workers and diplomats both in Bern and in the embassies.

Many of these reforms made sense. But over the years the domestication of SDC by foreign ministers, political appointees and diplomats has gone too far. While SDC’s power within the Department of Foreign Affairs was excessive at the turn of the millennium, the balance gradually tipped into the opposite direction; today Switzerland’s leading aid agency lacks elbow room, political leadership and bold ideas. Three challenges in particular stand out, which the newly appointed SDC director Ms. Patricia Danzi needs to address.

First, Swiss foreign aid has become too bureaucratic. With the forced integration of SDC into the rest of the Department of Foreign Affairs, diplomats’ culture of risk aversion and pleasing superiors gradually spread to the development agency. SDC officials in foreign capitals now report both to headquarters in Bern and to the Swiss ambassador. The latter is typically a career diplomat more concerned with his or her next appointment than with challenging host governments to get aid projects done.

SDC´s increasing bureaucratization is also explained by global trends in international development assistance. The quest for aid effectiveness and the move towards evidence-based development have led to a proliferation of paperwork. Caught between the requirements of desk work on the one hand and the caution by diplomats on the other hand SDC runs the risk of becoming a toothless agency.

Second, Swiss aid needs to be communicated much more effectively and consistently by the federal government. Successive foreign ministers including the current one, Mr. Ignazio Cassis, have not done enough to brand Swiss aid and to make SDC’s work more visible both at home and abroad. A simple look at SDC’s website illustrates the uninspiring state of its communication strategy. Other development agencies do a much better job at explaining foreign aid to their citizenry. Take for instance Danida’s Open Aid Initiative, which spells out in simple terms why and where Danish aid works.

Other countries have elevated the heads of their development agency to ministerial level. But the director of SDC is just one among many bureaucrats who lacks the clout and mandate to make Swiss foreign aid visible. Branding and communicating foreign aid should not be dismissed as a public relations exercise. They explain the complexities and necessity of international aid both to the Swiss and to foreign publics.

Third, SDC’s policy capacities have degraded over the years. Everybody who knows anything about international aid agrees that development is always also political and not just technical. Effective aid requires what British development professionals refer to as thinking and working politically. In the Swiss case the Department of Foreign Affairs’s Directorate of Political Affairs has the lead in formulating country specific policies. But its human resources and incentives to cover developing countries are very limited.

In addition, SDC officials are reluctant to engage with policymaking or sense a lack of political backing from the top. As a result, Swiss development interventions are often politically uninformed. SDC has strategies, but few country policies. This is problematic given the fact that nearly half of Switzerland’s current priority countries are run by authoritarian regimes.

The decade long weakening of SDC runs the risk of undermining Switzerland’s development policy. Both the political left and right are advised to think about how SDC can be rejuvenated. After all ‘Switzerland first’ is of little meaning, if the Swiss part of the aid equation is neglected.