Swisscontact is preparing for the decade. Heinrich M. Lanz, President of the Board of Trustees, and Samuel Bon, CEO, explain how the organisation is building on existing strengths and preparing for upcoming challenges and opportunities.
Mr. Lanz, you visited Albania and Kosovo in November 2017. What were your impressions?
Heinrich M. Lanz: This was my first visit to the Western Balkans, and I gained great insight into Swisscontact’s activities in the region. I also learned a lot of background information in my interactions with Swiss representatives there. In Albania, we visited a business incubator supported by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) Swiss Entrepreneurship Programme (Swiss EP). I was impressed by the young female entrepreneurs we met there. For instance, the 22-year-old who bakes cookies from traditional recipes and markets them online. She already employs two people. This is of course a small step for a country with a youth unemployment rate of 33%, but at the very least it represents a sign of future prospects. This young woman’s parents allowed her to start a business instead of studying at the university. Not long ago this would have been unimaginable in Albania.
Samuel Bon, what events in the last year stick in your mind the most?
Samuel Bon: In spring, we finished our last large-scale development project in South Africa and closed our office in Pretoria. We will continue our presence in South Africa and keep one representative there through the SECO mandate for import promotion (SIPPO). Saying goodbye to our team was an emotional moment. On the other hand, it was greatly satisfying to see that we could finish up large projects in areas of brick making, youth entrepreneurship, and local economic development successfully and sustainably, handing them over to local partners. We want to strengthen local economies and stakeholders, and in South Africa we most certainly succeeded.
The launch of the Swiss Import Promotion Programme SIPPO in April 2017 is a milestone for Swisscontact. Could you please explain why this programme is so important?
Heinrich M. Lanz: In all our projects, Swisscontact’s objective is to enable SMEs and smallholder farmers to bring competitive products to market. Sooner or later the question arises as to whether these products are exportable, and if you want to export them, you’ll need someone who will import them. From this angle, SIPPO’s focus on export capacity building is the logical continuation of Swisscontact’s activities in building and supporting sustainable value chains.
In September, Swisscontact hosted a conference for representatives of the private and public sector to discuss sustainable tourism. What did you take away from this event?
Heinrich M. Lanz: Sustainable tourism represents an opportunity for developing countries to spur local development, create jobs, and bring in hard currency. It becomes problematic when tourism is not rooted in the local economy and causes environmental, social, or cultural damages. The various panellists articulated this concern quite clearly during the podium discussion.
In 2017, Swisscontact’s project volume reached 100 million Swiss francs for the very first time, making it one of Switzerland’s largest international development organisations. Despite this fact, Swisscontact is still relatively unknown in public. Why is this?
Samuel Bon: Swisscontact is a private foundation. This is what differentiates us from other more well-known development organisations in Switzerland, which are often member organisations or associations. We do not conduct public fund drives. The Swiss government – through SECO and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), as well as foreign governments – issue public tenders that we are able to win in a competitive process. We also implement projects funded by private donor foundations and corporations. The fact that over the last few years we have been able to win some very sizable contracts shows that our donors trust us and that we are a reliable and competitive organisation.
Even though public donors in Switzerland are Swisscontact’s closest partners, the organisation would like to diversify its portfolio. What would it take to make this a reality?
Samuel Bon: We value the constructive collaboration based on dialogue that we have with SDC and SECO very highly. As an organisation rooted in Switzerland, we hope to continue making significant contributions to the Swiss Federal Government’s development goals. Still, we want to keep our funding sources diversified on two levels: firstly, through privately financed projects, and secondly through international and multilateral mandates. To achieve this, we will have to increase our collaboration with international partners as members of consortia and further professionalise our contract administration.
Digitalisation was a much-discussed subject in 2017. What does this development mean for international development cooperation?
Heinrich M. Lanz: Digitalisation enables solutions that could be of great significance to the poor and very poorest segments of the population in developing countries. A well-known example is how mobile phones are used to make money transfers and other banking transactions. This triggers broad development impulses, especially in remote areas. I’m willing to bet that blockchain technology could trigger similar ground-breaking developments, especially in the microfinance sector.
Is Swisscontact as an organisation well placed in terms of its digital infrastructure?
Samuel Bon: We have already invested significant amounts internally in virtual collaboration and enhanced knowledge transfer. This allows us to capitalise on innovations and technical solutions for our projects in the Western Balkans, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Nothing is more constant than change. How did the Board of Trustees change in 2017?
Heinrich M. Lanz: In May 2017, Wilhelm B. Jaggi, Marc Furrer, and National Council member Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter stepped down from the Board of Trustees. Paul Hälg and Rudolf Schmid were elected as new board members. I would like to welcome them and look forward to collaborating. We would like to thank the members who stepped down for their commitment to Swisscontact and look forward to their ongoing collaboration with our organisation.
In 2018 Swisscontact will launch its strategy for 2020–2030. Can you reveal where this is going?
Samuel Bon: In 2019, Swisscontact will turn 60. This is an important milestone that we should use to think about our future. We will align our new strategy closely with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Of course, we will remain faithful to our still relevant mission: the fight against poverty through supporting competitive as well as socially and environmentally responsible businesses in developing countries. We will be guided by the following: firstly, as mentioned above, we will increase implementation of new technologies; secondly, we will expand our work in partnerships and networks. Too many NGOs are still stuck working in a silo mentality. Strategic partnerships are becoming more important. Finally, we will continue to invest ever more sustainably in the promotion of young talent.
How do you assess these developments in the Board of Trustees?
Heinrich M. Lanz: We welcome the Management Board’s earnest and early commitment to take on these changes in Swisscontact’s global environment. The Committee of the Board of Trustees and I are closely tied to this process. I have the feeling that the tempo and extent of these important shifts will increase even more for Swisscontact in the coming years. We are doing everything we can to ensure a secure future for Swisscontact, building on our organisation’s strengths. Arguably, the most important of these strengths is Swisscontact’s proven ability, through its longstanding experience, to achieve real impact in projects, which we implement with a high level of professionality and often in difficult contexts. This is what our donors can and should expect from us.
Interview conducted by Katrin Schnellmann
Swiss Foundation for Technical Cooperation
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