Despite the promise, Switzerland is doing relatively little about getting the rest of the world to understand what this incredible community of international aid workers, academics, entrepreneurs, researchers, policymakers and advocates has to offer.
For the past three years, I have been living and working between Geneva and Bangkok. This has provided an unusual perspective of how international Switzerland – a more appropriate term than “international Geneva” given what the German and Italian-speaking parts contribute – is perceived.
But times have changed – and fast. In less than 20 years, Asia has excelled in coming across as invigorating, creatively enterprising and forward-looking, despite its often authoritarian regimes that disrespect human rights. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and increasingly Vietnam, all provide stimulating business environments, particularly innovative technologies, that only accentuate the continent’s new slogan: “The Future is Asian.”
International Switzerland, on the other hand, comes across as lumbering, self-satisfied and often parochial. Apart from worldwide professional networks in science, development or finance, all of which have long understood this country’s importance as a convener of global expertise, most ordinary people, including youth, do not. Whether Asian, African, American and even European, they barely perceive neutral Switzerland as an energetic focal point for key global issues. The stories people remember have more to do with Nazi gold, the protection of companies against whistleblowers, the Nestlé powdered milk scandal, FIFA corruption and the harbouring of illegally-obtained wealth.
International Switzerland is only vaguely known
And yet, with all its expertise and imagination, plus the ability to draw some of the world’s most competent professionals, international Switzerland should be standing out as a leader for change. It should be seen as the “go-to” arena for resolving some of our planet’s most immediate challenges: climate change, equitable access to health, medical research, food security, specialised education, human rights, conflict mediation, child welfare, conservation and environment…The list is long.
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While perhaps broadly recognized, particularly by populations in crisis, as the place where many of the world’s leading United Nations and other humanitarian or development agencies are based, whether the International Red Cross or World Health Organization, the bulk of what international Switzerland does is only vaguely known, even in this country. Living in the Lake Geneva region or Zurich, international professionals often assume that everyone is aware. They are not. This is a pity.
We need to convey to the world what International Switzerland does best
Ground-breaking developments by AGORA or EPFL in Lausanne and Geneva do not spring to mind for most Asians or Africans when they think about cancer or brain research. (See Global Geneva articles on AGORA and EPFL) Nor does all the exceptional work of Swiss-based organizations such as the International Council of Nurses, Terre des Hommes or Medair automatically factor in the everyday conversations of many Europeans and Americans. When travelling abroad I am often astounded that even well-informed people have little idea what UNHCR, IOM or ITU mean.
Few people outside the business of development are aware that several thousand Swiss-based NGOs, foundations, institutes and companies, whether ETH in Zurich, the International Mountain Society in Bern, the Anne Frank Foundation in Basel, the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos or the Jan Michalski Centre for Writing and Literature in Montricher are all engaged worldwide. There is even a Swiss Polar Institute running Arctic exploration and research in northern Greenland. The IBO Foundation with its worldwide International Baccalaureate outreach is also based in Switzerland. (See Youth Writes article on how the IB betrayed its students during 2020 pandemic) A completely new foundation, the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA), aims to do precisely that, anticipate the potential of new science and technological advances as the key to building the future. All boast exceptional global relevance that Switzerland needs to highlight more effectively.
One main reason for this lack of global awareness is that authorities and most institutions are failing to invest in independent journalism capable of reaching out credibly to worldwide audiences. (Editor’s Note: In the interests of transparency, our non-profit association Global Geneva Group has received funding from Swiss-based foundations such as Jan Michalski, Oak, Womanity and Alcea, plus varied support from individual contributors world-wide).
This needs to be done in a manner and context that people understand. The problem today is that few newsgathering media have the means to operate properly in the face of social media giants, such as Facebook and Google, which have contributed significantly to the subversion of independent, sustainable reporting. This despite the agreement now made between the Australian government and social media platforms; the arrangement primarily benefits large news organizations. (See Global Geneva article on Cyber Monsters)
Most media in the United States, for example, must now rely on foundation grants and individual contributors to survive. The same is happening in Europe and to a lesser extent in Africa and Asia. Foundation or taxpayer support for public interest media, which is the case in the UK, Netherlands and Switzerland for broadcasting, may soon have to become the norm. In countries such as Russia or China, however, state support dictates pro-government editorial content, while suppressing independent reporting. In West Africa, financial support is often provided to newspapers as well as radio and television stations by politicians, business people and the government. But the journalists are then expected to tow the party line of their benefactors.
Trusted journalism: an effective tool for countering cyber abuse
And yet, as ex-US president Trump, Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Putin, Uganda’s Museveni, the UK’s Johnson with Brexit and the Chinese communist party have shown, their undermining if not repression of independent journalism poses a severe threat to democracy and the right to trusted information.
Such attitudes also affect the way the United Nations and many of its offices operate. There needs to be far more dogged reporting into the pressures exerted by China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other countries on such organizations, such as the Human Rights Council. Or how they are infiltrating institutions both politically and economically – all linked in one way or another to International Switzerland themes – the Middle East, Africa , parts of Asia and even the Caribbean. Similarly, too, journalists must hold UN-proclaimed reforms to account, such as a halt to political appointments by member states of individuals not necessarily suited to the job.
According to the World Economic Forum in Geneva (which hosts the Centre for Cyber Security) and other institutions, cyber abuse such as fake news, disinformation and the manipulation of facts now poses one of the world’s most severe threats to society, and above all, to our youth. Yet little effort is being made to remedy this despite the potential of reliable journalism to serve as a counterbalance.
Even public reactions with regard to Covid-19 indicate to what extent people are heavily influenced by rumour and false social media. One only has to look at the reluctance if not refusal by so many to wear masks and socially distance to understand the importance of persuasive, but above all, reliable data. Even now, numerous people – 30 to 40 per cent of some populations – view vaccines with scepticism believing that they are harmful, ineffective or part of a conspiracy. (See article on how better funded journalism could have prevented the COVID-19 pandemic)
Switzerland needs to set a global example by becoming far more imaginative – and responsible – in the way it communicates with the world. This means being far more supportive of independent journalism in the public interest. Most international Switzerland themes are planetary and hence require critical but solutions-oriented local and international reporting.
The sad reality, however, is that neither the Swiss authorities nor many of Switzerland’s 6,000+ foundations appear to understand the importance of trusted journalism as one of the most effective tools for credible public outreach and that this should be viewed as part and parcel of all humanitarian, development, educational, cultural and scientific support. Far too many regard it as PR rather than something people need to better understand. Sponsoring international conferences, trade fairs and promotional events is not enough. More needs to be invested in reliable information itself.
While some funding has indeed gone to Swiss media, primarily because of Covid and is considered to be in the interests of local politicians, there is only limited backing for specialized international reporting aimed at informing worldwide audiences.
A Global Fund for Public Interest Journalism
International Switzerland needs to think out of the box and with imagination. One solution for establishing itself as a known leader is with the creation of an editorially independent Global Fund for Public Interest Journalism, involving perhaps a consortium of Swiss and international foundations, plus support by companies, banks and, why not, Facebook and Google. Several such initiatives already exist so it would make sense to join forces, or at least to share funding for more effective outreach.
This would provide journalists, regardless whether based in Sion or Singapore, with grants enabling them to report properly from the field on relevant issues, such as wars, humanitarian crises, polar warming, world trade, Afghan peace talks, science, medical research, pandemics and wildlife, sex trafficking, Sustainable Development Goals…
In addition, as a means of stimulating a broader International Switzerland awareness, this could be combined with the financing of fellowships – something that has been done with success in the past – enabling journalists, including Swiss, to spend several weeks or months reporting with different organizations, such as the CERN, IOC, ART-Basel or even sustainable mountain tourism through its prestigious hotel schools or various Alpine institutes.
In the same vein, the UN, international corporations and others should consider dedicating a portion of their budgets (eg. 1-2 per cent) to support far more credible independent media initiatives. The public would be far better served by such diversity of content. After all, the job of a good journalist is to inform reliably and in a manner that will enable audiences to better understand what matters.
Edward Girardet is a Swiss-American writer and foreign correspondent with more than 40 years experience covering humanitarian crises, wars and development. He is editor of Global Insights Magazine, which is part of the non-profit Global Geneva Group (www.global-geneva.com) that seeks to highlight international Switzerland themes worldwide. He is also director of its
The role of Global Insights Magazine & Youth Writes
Established by experienced foreign correspondents, plus relying on a worldwide network of over 2,000 journalists, photographers, cartoonists, film-makers and other media experts, we focus on compelling story telling and the issues that international Switzerland represents. Hence, our articles deal with corporate whistleblowers, FIFA corruption and hidden deals allowing Chinese security agents to operate on Swiss soil, but also the plight of refugees in Bangladesh, the flooding of Southeast Asian cities due to climate change, the link between pandemics and wildlife conservation in Africa, the destruction of cultural heritage in time of war and the importance of science to change our world.
Above all, together with our Geneva-based non-profit association, Global Geneva Group, we make our content available for free in the public interest. Even more crucial, we work with young people as part of our Youth Writes educational initiative to help improve their writing skills as well as to make them more aware through quality journalism of global themes, including cyber abuse.