2011 is a year of anniversaries: 50 years of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), 40 years of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) and 30 years of Swiss Rescue. Yet this year also promises to be extremely difficult. During the Humanitarian Aid Conference held on 25 March, three crisis cells were simultaneously active: for Japan, North Africa and the Ivory Coast respectively. The strain on all resources, coupled with the fact that this was the last conference to be chaired by Toni Frisch, the long-serving Delegate for Humanitarian Aid, lent the event a special character.
The ability to adapt to continually new situations has become a necessity and is a speciality of Humanitarian Aid. Extreme weather events are on the rise, claiming more and more victims. Conflicts and political tension take different forms and call for special, situation-specific measures. In her opening address, Federal President Micheline Calmy-Rey cited the historic changes happening in North Africa and the Near East, and the chain of natural and nuclear disasters in Japan. "When a country as highly industrialized and well prepared as Japan reaches its limits, the importance of thinking in global scenarios cannot be neglected anymore.” she said. Alongside rapid responses to save lives in a disaster situation, she added, the importance of disaster prevention is growing.
In his address, SDC Director Martin Dahinden also focused on the changes and realignments which the past decade has seen – both for the SDC and for Humanitarian Aid: "Natural disasters, violent conflicts, political unrest or economic crises are causing setbacks and necessitating a change of direction." But, he went on, amidst change there are also constants: the efforts of Swiss aid workers, their state of preparedness to ensure a rapid, coordinated and targeted response, their extensive field experience and their flexibility.
Both Federal President Micheline Calmy-Rey and SDC Director Martin Dahinden praised the services rendered by Toni Frisch, who is retiring at the end of April after ten years as Head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid and was therefore chairing the conference for the last time. Frisch has spent most of his professional career in the service of victims of war and disaster. In his capacity as Head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid, he modernised the unit and made it more professional. "He has enshrined Humanitarian Aid more effectively in Swiss foreign policy and increased its profile on the international stage," emphasised Federal President Calmy-Rey.
The guest speaker at the conference was Valerie Amos, UN Emergency Aid Coordinator and Head of the OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) in Geneva. She stressed Switzerland’s achievements in the field of international humanitarian work and the leading role that Geneva played in this area. Before the event, official talks were held between Federal President Calmy-Rey and Valerie Amos.
Films were shown on the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and on the reconstruction of schools and a hospital in Haiti as well as projects in Pakistan such as the cash programme and the distribution of drinking water and tents. The annual conference was held in the Kursaal of Berne and attended by more than 1,000 interested individuals: around 200 more than last year.
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