Geneviève Federspiel, you worked for the SDC in India and Nepal before becoming head of the Swiss Cooperation Office in Mali (2008–2012). What can you tell us about how Switzerland works in such contexts?
One of the greatest strengths of the SDC is that it always seeks to fully understand the realities of the contexts in which it operates. Mali is a very vulnerable country. For several years, the SDC has used a scenario-based approach (see note below) here to anticipate political, social, economic and security developments. This has enabled us to adapt our work to the situation whenever a crisis occurred.
Moreover, we have managed to develop a programme that takes contextual realities into account, which is the exact opposite of the more dogmatic approach used by many donors. We have also established cooperation activities at the grassroots level, adapting aid according to the actual needs of the country and its people.
We work in specific geographical regions. The areas tend to be very large – Mali is 40 times larger than Switzerland. In each region, we adopt a territorial vision and become familiar with the people who live there. The SDC works with its partners to ensure a strong presence on the ground. It also tries to establish direct relations with institutions and agents of change through a large number of missions. This approach allows us to determine what can and should be done.
Switzerland tries to establish a development vision that encompasses the entire country. It focuses on certain aspects such as: basic education and vocational education and training as a means of driving employment and the economic integration of young people; development of infrastructures; as well as rural development.
The issue of good governance is also a priority theme for Swiss cooperation. Given the situation of instability following the March 2012 coup d’état, how will it be possible for cooperation to continue along this line?
I believe that one of the reasons for the conflict and general discontent in Mali – among numerous other reasons – is the fact that the population is denied the opportunity to play an active role in managing its own development. The system remains highly centralised, which restricts participation. In addition, Mali is a multicultural country comprised of several ethnic groups. As a result, realities are very different from one part of the country to another. The northern part of the country is mostly desert. The inhabitants (Tuareg, Fulani, Bozo) live a nomadic existence and maintain strong interdependent ties with other ethnic groups (Songhai, Arab). In contrast, the southern part of the country has greater resources and its population is rather sedentary. It is therefore important for local solutions to be developed to address local problems.
The issue of local governance is fundamental. The aim is to achieve a stronger level of commitment, i.e. participation from civil society as a whole, including all stakeholders from both the public and private sector. We are also trying to support the transition process and ensure that it is guided by a collective consciousness.
About ten years ago, when decentralisation became an objective in Mali, Switzerland immediately moved in this direction. Today, in the context of instability following the coup d’état in March 2012, Swiss development programmes are less vulnerable because they are not dependant on Bamako. We have been fortunate enough to maintain our activities in the southern and central parts of the country. This has prevented the situation from destabilising further and has enabled us to consolidate what already works well.
In other words, Switzerland has no intention of pulling out of Mali?
The Swiss cooperation strategy is designed in such a way as to enable us to maintain our activities regardless of the scenario. That said, insecurity and violence in certain occupied areas of the northern part of the country have forced us to interrupt our programmes there.
At any rate, my experience in several countries has shown that it is a mistake to withdraw, since this not only destabilises the country further, it means losing all of the energy and funding invested. A much wiser response is to find a way to strengthen what is still standing. Today, Switzerland pursues this logic by funding the transition process in Mali. By responding to the crisis situation in Mali, we are able to support local public management, basic education, vocational education and training for employment as well as local economic development for food security.