Amidst growing awareness of the economic challenges faced by under-developed countries, the idea was formed that the Swiss private sector could contribute to the economic development of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In 1959, the ‘Swiss Foundation for Technical Cooperation’ was founded in Zurich with this goal in mind. Since the very year it was founded, the Foundation (renamed Swisscontact in 1971) was engaged in creating educational facilities in India, Pakistan and other countries; these functioned as a type of “Swiss business card”. At the same time, the projects allowed Swiss companies to gain a foothold in future export markets.
In an effort to promote industrialisation and economic growth, the Foundation’s work was focused on skills development. In 1962 our first vocational school was opened in Chandigarh, India. 36 people received training at the engineering workshop, which was designed according to the Swiss model. One year later, an agricultural training school – financed by Swisscontact – was opened in Sékou, Dahomey (now Benin). From the very start, Swisscontact ensured its partner countries were involved in the vocational schools, for example by having them provide land or buildings.
Soon, more vocational schools were opened with the support of Swisscontact, in countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By 1979, there were 16 vocational schools in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Benin, Tunisia, and Tanzania. Tool manufacturers, precision and maintenance mechanics, refrigeration technicians and agricultural machinery technicians were trained at these facilities. In order to optimise the return on the amounts invested, instructors were also trained, who could then go on to impart their knowledge to many more young people.
Skills development remained a focus of Swisscontact’s work through the 1970s. Indonesia is a good example of this; in 1979, the Indonesian Ministry of Education commissioned Swisscontact to help build six technical schools for 5,000 trainees, as well as a training centre. We had sown the seeds of this partnership five years prior by opening a training school for mechanics in Bandung.
With its Senior Expert Contact (SEC), formerly known as Senior Expert Corps, Swisscontact has since 1979 offered further opportunity to share know-how. Our first Senior Expert, a former spa director from St. Moritz, developed a new tourism concept in Lesotho. Since then, each year more than a hundred retired Swiss professionals share their skills as volunteers on short-term projects. The knowledge transfer takes place in more than 100 branches of industry.
In the 1980s, there was the conviction that economic growth in underdeveloped countries is a prerequisite to their ability to satisfy basic human needs. Swisscontact responded by offering more training courses designed to integrate disadvantaged populations into the labour market. Vocational education became more flexible, with training programmes which were able to be fine-tuned to reflect the needs of the private sector. Mobile training centres were also introduced.
Our first business development project was launched in Costa Rica in 1981. It targeted agricultural machinery mechanics, who received not only technical education, but business management skills too. Furthermore, Swisscontact supported small businesses in their efforts to organise into interest groups and develop new systems to share machinery and equipment. The promotion of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) developed into one of Swisscontact’s core activities, from Peru to Indonesia.
Insufficient access to financial services hugely undermines entrepreneurial initiative. For this reason, Swisscontact has been helping to create a model for business cooperatives. Since the 1990s, the introduction of savings products and microcredit have gained importance. The first pure microfinance project was launched in 1995 in Ecuador, where Swisscontact supported the development of savings and credit cooperatives, ensuring they met the needs of rural client members. Today, over half of Swisscontact projects feature a financial services component.
Swisscontact’s SME promotion has undergone continuous professionalisation. In 1996, for-profit consulting centres were established in Ecuador and Peru. The innovation here was that these centres could earn the money required to run their own businesses.
The Rio Conference in 1992 highlighted the concepte that environmental issues and social problems are inextricably linked. In response, Swisscontact began implementing environmental conservation projects.
In 1993, we implemented a clean-air programme in Costa Rica – the first project in Latin America with the objective of improving air quality. The “Aire Puro” (“Clean Air”) concept was based on the introduction of lead-free petrol and emissions laws and controls, as had been done in Switzerland long before. Auto mechanics were trained on how to tune up motors to minimise toxic emissions and with emissions testing, automotive garages had a new business opportunity. Environmental protection and private sector development were therefore working hand-in-hand. Similar projects followed in Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Vietnam.
In 1994, Swisscontact supported the development of a training workshop for auto mechanics in Durres, Albania. This was the first Swisscontact project in post-Communist Eastern Europe and provided us with the opportunity to help reform Albania’s entire vocational education system. Since then, Swisscontact has implemented numerous projects that link hands-on vocational education and training with labour market integration programmes.
Millions of people in Bangladesh are excluded from economic development. The Katalyst Project implemented by Swisscontact changed this situation for many. Since its launch in 2002, numerous initiatives have been implemented to develop markets in such a way as to ensure smallholder farmers may benefit as well.
With this project, Swisscontact has helped spread the “inclusive markets” approach considerably. This approach involves influencing market systems to ensure disadvantaged populations access improved products, services, business opportunities and jobs. Today, Swisscontact applies this approach in all its interventions.
Katalyst is the largest project in Swisscontact’s history. By project end in 2018 – thanks to support from development agencies in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Canada and the Netherlands, more than US$100 million was utilised to sustainably improve basic living conditions for 4.7 million smallholder farmers and SMEs in Bangladesh, increasing net incomes by US$700 million.
The objective of sustainability, defined as the interdependence of economic, social, and environmental development, defines all aspects of Swisscontact’s work. Skills development, the main objective from the start, remains an important topic, and SME development continues to play an important role. In 2003, Swisscontact began supporting commercial banks in East Africa to develop new and improved financial products. Local banks were able to expand their outreach to low-income clients, mostly through good infrastructure. After the devastating tsunami, in 2005 Swisscontact got involved in rebuilding the economy in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. In Indonesia, emergency assistance evolved into a long-term development cooperation; support for textiles firms that had lost all their infrastructure in the tsunami extended beyond reconstruction and now focuses on building their competitiveness.
Swisscontact remains very active in environmental affairs. In the face of continuous urbanisation, there is a focus on advising state agencies on sustainable urban planning. Since 2009, we have been working on the separation and recycling of household waste in Bolivia, where local neighbourhood involvement plays a key role. In numerous South American countries, improving energy efficiency in brickmaking has been an important focal point since 2018.
Since 2013 in Kakuma, Kenya, Swisscontact has been focusing on improving the basic skills of young people in and around Africa’s largest refugee camp. Helping to integrate these people living in a fragile environment into the local labour market presents a special challenge to our staff and partner organisations.
Peru is particularly significant to Swisscontact. In 2016, we reached an important milestone: 50 years of projects, during which time Peru rose from a developing country to a burgeoning economy. In 1966, we started training mechanical engineers. With the greater economic growth that came later, the challenges changed and it is now about including rural populations, who had been largely left out of the development equation, during the growth stages.
Our project work in global programmes implemented simultaneously in many countries is of ever-increasing importance to Swisscontact. In these projects too, our role is primarily that of a facilitator. We do not disperse funds directly – instead, we bring local market actors on board to make sure that they are the main drivers. This ensures the activities will continue beyond Swisscontact’s presence.
Since 2016, Swisscontact has been in charge of the Swiss Entrepreneurship Programme, which promotes counselling and the interlink of local start-up enterprises. This initiative is being implemented in Albania, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Peru and Vietnam. The programme does not work directly with the start-ups. Instead, it helps local business support organisations to provide assistance and develop professional services. The programme includes incubators and accelerators available to help start-up entrepreneurs with skills, networks and infrastructure while they build their companies. The programme also links entrepreneurs with angel investors.
In 2017, Swisscontact took over implementation of the Swiss Import Promotion Programme (SIPPO), the objective of which is to strengthen export structures in our partner countries and increase export revenues. On behalf of the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), Swisscontact is therefore supporting export promotion organisations and sector associations in 11 partner countries to improve the services they offer their member companies. In this way, the member companies will enjoy more success exporting to or importing into the EU. SIPPO focuses on four Western Balkan countries in addition to Peru, Colombia, South Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam, Tunisia and Morocco.