ZANZIBAR CAFE: A Column by Edward Girardet

This piece by journalist and author Edward Girardet was first published by the Essential Edge on 9 June, 2013.

The extraordinary lack of interest and imagination among Swiss politicians for the importance of the Lake Geneva Region as the international humanitarian, environmental and telecommuncations’ capital is leading to its steady demise. Not only did the Federal Council in Berne recently decide that the country’s crucial English-speaking international community, which includes numerous Swiss citizens, no longer deserve to have a public broadcaster in the form of World Radio Switzerland (WRS), but even more UN and other agencies are exploring the possibilities of pulling up stakes and leaving.

Berne’s announcement at the end of May, 2013 to ignore bilateral arrangements by blocking access for new EU citizens to work in Switzerland is not helping matters either. Nor the country’s vote this past weekend to make it more difficult for asylum seekers to obtain refuge inside its borders, a move that is evoking deep concern among international human rights and refugee organizations, including UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a UN agency based in Geneva. Still.

The latest threat to Geneva’s gradually eroding status as the world’s principal humanitarian centre is the wooing by Denmark of UNICEF’s European operations, which are based near the World Trade Organization’s headquarters on the outskirts of the city. Earlier this month, the Danish government inaugurated what it describes as a new “United Nations’ Quarter” to house UN and NGO offices. It has specifically expressed its interest in providing UNICEF with a new home, notably a free building, as well as other incentives. UNICEF officials are considering the option.

But Denmark is not the only nation seeking to rid Geneva of its once unquestioned global status, which includes over 400 UN, NGO and other related organizations. These include agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, CARE International, Handicap International, MSF International, CERN, Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS. Over the past decade and a half, various crucial organizations have abandoned Geneva in favour of locations elsewhere.

The main reasons cited for departure are usually cost, but also insufficient incentives among the Swiss to make their presence worthwhile. A number of NGOs, initially attracted by the concentration of international humanitarian or environmental organizations making it easier to remain in touch or share expertise, have complained that neither Berne nor Geneva have gone out of their way to help them establish operations in the region. One Swiss Development Agency (SDA) official privately admitted that his government had become “extraordinarily complacent” and that this was having a “highly negative” impact on Switzerland’s potential as a discreet but effective global player, which is what he believes his country’s role should be.

Some NGOs have received subsidized office space for the first year or two, but were then obliged to fork out rents far higher than commercial rates. “In the end, there is no particular advantage to accept such forms of support,” noted one British NGO representative, whose office had to change location. This has prompted some agencies to move over to the French side, where costs are relatively less, or to reluctantly leave the region completely.

Major UN organizations — or at least some of their activities such as accountancy operations — have abandoned the region. In 1996, United Nations Volunteers (UNV) picked up sticks and moved to Bonn. With the departure of various ministries to Berlin following re-unification, the former German capital had empty offices for the begging. In recent years, both the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) transferred part of their operations to Budapest and Kuala Lumpur respectively. The initial idea was to cut back on expenditure, but in the end the migrations made little sense. Rising costs, such as local Indonesia or Hungarian salaries, ensured that Kuala Lumpur with Budapest not far behind would soon prove just as expensive as Geneva.

Last October, 2012, Geneva’s image was further shattered, when the steering committee of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) opted to base its permanent secretariat in South Korea as part of a new environmental centre. Other countries, notably Germany, Mexico, Poland and Namibia, were also vying to host the organization. The Fund plans to raise $100 billion dollars of sponsorship by 2020 to help developing countries counter the negative consequences of climate.

Recently, too, UN headquarters in New York ensured that conferences relating to the Syria crisis transfer from Geneva, where initial talks had been held, to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean further denying the Swiss city a crucial role as a non-political humanitarian focal point. Last week, however, the Russians and Americans met secretly in Geneva, which is perceived as neutral, to discuss Syria peace talks, which may now take place in July. Bringing such negotiations back to Geneva would prove far more in line with what the city has to offer, notably a location where all sides can meet without political interference.

Another similar role would be for Geneva — with its neutral, non-NATO status — to host initial peace and reconciliation talks for Afghanistan. But this will depend on the Swiss, who, while acknowledging the possibility of embracing such a critical initiative, have so far shown little enthusiasm for taking the next step. Doha, Paris and Istanbul are all often cited as possible venues for urgently needed Afghan talks. In one way or another, however, they are part of the problem rather than the solution as they are too closely linked with NATO or Pakistan.

Part of the responsibility for this gradual degradation of Geneva’s global image lies with the UN General Assembly itself. The fact that the UN is being increasingly sidelined by the United States, Russia and other world powers, who themselves are failing to communicate with other, has not prevented various countries from pushing for more decentralization, usually in their own interests. Officially, however, this is to ensure that other parts, particularly in the developing world, have the chance to host UN agencies or programmes. So more than ever, now is the time to ensure that places like Geneva retain their roles to act effectively without having to fight political battles.

Such decentralization approaches are often counter-productive. The presence of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in Kenya might have sounded good at the time it was established in 1972 with a spanking new campus on the outskirts of Nairobi. Today, however, the UN specialized agency operates as if on another planet. It has isolated itself in Gigiri, a posh suburb, as a gated community from ordinary Kenyans, primarily for security reasons. Nairobi’s soaring crime rate has made it too dangerous for internationals to live within the city. Many, too, are reluctant to establish new operations or to hold meetings in Nairobi for fear of being mugged, car-jacked or even killed.

From the operational point of view, it makes far greater sense to focus organizations, both UN and civil society, with shared interests in one location. Not only does it make it far easier for the media to cover, but a concentration of international experts in one place has significant advantages, including greater cross-pollination of ideas and actions with other organizations not necessarily in the same field. Humanitarian response, environment, sustainable development and communications are all linked in one way or another with other.

Geneva, for example, still retains an impressive array of environmental agencies or initiatives, such as the secretariat of the Global Framework of Climate Services, the secretariat of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the headquarters of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The latter alone boasts scores of top climate change specialists. What journalist is going traipse all the way over to Seoul to meet with climate experts?

Furthermore, even in the age of webcasting, by dispersing such organizations all around the world is only leading to further carbon fuel wastage by forcing specialists to travel from one part of the world to another for meetings or conferences.

For the moment, the Lake Geneva region (various organizations are based up the lake in the Canton of Vaud or in neighbouring France, including nearby Lyons which hosts the international police organization, Interpol) still offers far more than any other locations worldwide. The city itself benefits from well-versed diplomatic attaches with the scores of international diplomatic missions, including major donors such as the European Union, British, Americans, Germans and Scandinavians, accredited to the UN and the Swiss government. Many attend UN-related meetings on a daily or weekly basis.

Concerned observers worried by this gradual deterioration of Lake Geneva’s status maintain that both the cantonal and federal authorities have consistently failed to make a more pointed effort to make the city more attractive. Many German-Swiss are more than happy to ignore Geneva’s importance, while Geneva politicians, many of whom still have no real vision for the Lake Geneva Region, including the French Rhones Alpes where many Swiss and internationals live, tend to spend more time bickering among themselves than considering what really matters.

This obtuse if not arrogant approach by Berne, which one Swiss observer referred to as an attitude “more worthy of mountain goats” than a sophisticated leadership intent on playing a more global role, is not doing anyone any favours, least of all the Swiss themselves.

The cancellation by the Federal Council of government support for WRS (SEE The Essential Edge piece on WRS) by refusing to renew its FM license is particularly indicative of this narrow-mindedness and lack of imagination. The relatively popular radio station, which attracts some 150,000 regular listeners, is now scheduled to shut down on August 31, 2013. The Lake Geneva region can still expect to be served by two radio stations, notably Radio 74, a Christian station based on the French side of the border, and Radio Frontier, a Geneva commercial operation currently only available on Internet, which has been vying to take over the WRS mandate. Even with digital radio, most people still listen to FM on their car radios during drive-time. This means that many internationals will no longer have ready access to information about Switzerland or the region.

What this all suggests is that neither Berne nor many of the region’s local politicians are able to grasp what “Global Geneva” has to offer. Nor that they understand the importance of Switzerland’s crucial expatriate communities to the country’s economy as well as its image abroad, which has been flagging for years.

Of equal concern, there is a growing divide in cantons such as Geneva and Vaud as to whether outsiders are welcome or not. Whether xenophobic or racist, local Swiss are voicing growing displeasure with foreigners. They believe that many internationals are not involved with the communities in which they live. or are too unsettled, “always coming and going” as one merchant in Coppet put it.

Similar resentment exists on the French side, where local house rents and other costs have rocketed because of influxes over the past decade of Swiss and other internationals. With Switzerland part of the Schengen Accords, Swiss and foreigners can live and work on both sides of the border. The fact that the bulk of these outsiders pay taxes and thus support Switzerland’s well-being appears to be ignored. (France also benefits from taxes paid in Switzerland but which are shared with the French side).

Such attitudes are strikingly reminiscent of World War II, whereby Switzerland did everything possible not to be involved and yet was perfectly happy to benefit, particularly financially, from its international position as a ‘neutral’ country.

This is precisely where a more concerted and imaginative effort by the Swiss to work more closely with the international community could help bridge the obvious gaps that exist and are clearly poisoning what the international community has to offer. This, too, is where a readily accessible information source with local news and discussion, such as WRS, can make a difference.

Fortunately, there is now a move among some Genevans, including select local politicians, to explore how they can make the region more attractive not only to the international organizations, but the Swiss themselves. This includes a broader vision for what the Lake Geneva Region has to offer and to explain more effectively what role “Global Geneva” can achieve.

One challenge is how to bring together the incredible diversity of the region’s Swiss, French and international finance, humanitarian, CERN, artistic and other communities, many of whom are not in touch with each other.

The new “International Geneva” plan, which is being currently researched, is seeking to incorporate more constructive steps to halt the withering of this extraordinary global information and logistical facility. The end objective is to ensure that Geneva not only remains an international hub for humanitarian, environmental, communications’ and sustainable development initiatives, but also continues to develop as one.

Edward Girardet is a writer and journalist on humanitarian, development and media issues. He is also editor of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan (4th edition, 2014)  His most recent book is Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan.