Helvetas – oriented towards the needs and interests of the local communities

By Denise Nanni and Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik. In the following our interview with Corina Tschudi of the Swiss Organisation Helvetas engaged in the field of international cooperation. Corina told us about the history and aims of her organisation. Would like to thank her for her time and the photos she sent us.
How was Helvetas founded?
It all started in 1954 when a group of civilian service workers, quakers, refugee helpers and engineers decided to make a (Swiss) contribution to the material, social and cultural development of economically disadvantaged people outside Europe. Supported by two personally committed national government officials, the group founded the organisation “Schweizerisches Hilfswerk für aussereuropäische Gebiete -SHAG” (Swiss aid agency for extra-european areas) in June 1955.
With only a few thousand Swiss francs in the start-up fund and not more than two project ideas in mind (Nepal and Iraq), the group established the association. By autumn 1955, first sums of money and technical instruments were brought to Nepal. Project work expanded rapidly, and SHAG established a reputation as an expert on drinking water.
By the time the Swiss Confederation and established relief organisations ventured into the “third world” with their own projects, SHAG had been already active in Nepal, Tunisia and Cameroon (early 1960s). Its experiences and project approaches were very much in demand and the Swiss Confederation increasingly assigned projects to SHAG. At the same time, competition from other relief organisations increased and different ideas regarding the strategic orientation of the organisation appeared. As a result, personnel changes and structural reforms were made and finally, the name changed: SHAG became Helvetas.
In 2011 Helvetas merged with Intercooperation and is since then called HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation.
On what issues do you concentrate your activities?
The main focus of our work is on international development projects. HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation is committed to improving the living conditions of disadvantaged people in rural parts of Africa, Asia, South and Central America and Eastern Europe. With 1600 collaborators in about 30 countries, we focus on the specific areas of Water and Infrastructure (water and sanitation, water for food, bridges and roads), Rural Economy (food, organic farming and Fairtrade), Environment and Climate Change (soils, forests, water and energy), Skills Development and Education (basic literacy and vocational training) and Governance and Peace (human rights and culture). HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation also weaves several crosscutting themes into all its projects and programmes to enhance their effectiveness: Gender and Social Equity, Capacity Development and Partnership, and Learning and Innovation.
In which way do you identify a place where an intervention is needed?
Poor and disadvantaged people are at the heart of HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation’s work in our partner countries. Our actions are aimed at men and women, households, local communities and civil society organisations, as well as small and medium-sized companies. As social exclusion is increasingly a factor in poverty, we target our support towards women and other socially disadvantaged groups, including young people.
We focus on supporting people in rural areas, to whom little of nationwide development benefits trickle down. As a result of rapid urbanisation we are also active in the catchment areas of larger cities and in small and medium-sized towns. We recognise the strong linkages between rural and urban areas and build capacities of people to use the full potentials of these linkages.
Do you involve civil society in your activities? If yes, how?
HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation’s projects are oriented towards the needs and interests of the local communities. They themselves should be able to determine the kind of support they most urgently require. Therefore, the participation of civil society in planning and implementing projects is HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation’s foremost priority.
However, involving local people also means that they must actively strive to improve their living conditions and are prepared to take on responsibility for the projects and make contributions in kind. These may be material or in the form of voluntary work. In order to make locals fit to continue activities and maintain established infrastructure such as water provision systems for example, HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation organises training and capacity building of the communities and/or local partner institutions and their staff.
Do you cooperate with local authorities and institutions? (of the countries where you carry on your projects) If yes, how?
We believe that successful development cooperation requires strong local partners who can build a bridge between foreign aid and domestic needs. Therefore, in its projects, HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation always works with local partners, not only from civil society, but also government bodies or actors from the private sector. With this approach, sustainable and widespread impact can be ensured.
This cooperation with local partners is based on mutual respect and with consideration for our partners’ autonomy. HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation sets great store by an open exchange of information, clear agreement on joint goals and a clear allocation of responsibilities. Dependence is avoided and partners are empowered to run the project on their own at the end of the phase of joint implementation.
Mali by Fatoumata Diabate
Guatemala by Simon Opladen
Nepal by Narendra Shrestha