Clean water, good schooling, reliable healthcare. In many settings, these necessities cannot be taken for granted. Also because the political framework is inadequate in many places. Helvetas’ editor Rebecca Vermot interviewed Bernd Steimann, Helvetas’ development policy coordinator, about political engagement in development cooperation.
Time and again, the buzzword advocacy comes up in development cooperation, climate protection and other political concerns. What is advocacy?
It means advocating for the concerns and interests of others. At Helvetas, we define advocacy very broadly as targeted influence, whether in politics, the private sector or civil society. We give a voice to those who have no voice in political processes and are typically left out.
So advocacy has nothing to do with street protests?
Not often – advocacy is rather dry work. It's usually meetings, conversations, putting facts on the table, listening to experiences, trying to understand how laws and political regulations affect the lives of different populations. It's consultations, hearings, petitions, lobbying in parliament. But advocacy can also take other forms when it is difficult to bring a concern directly to politicians; it can be an exhibition, media work or even a play. I'm thinking of land rights or the position of minorities in a society. These are often charged issues; they are about power, about money, about political influence. Other forms are therefore an opportunity – especially in countries where the space for political participation is narrow. At Helvetas, we prefer to seek out conversation rather than protest and confrontation.
Why does Helvetas do this type of political work?
We are convinced that development cooperation cannot be separated from political frameworks. For example, in Switzerland what the parliament decides has an impact on Swiss lives. It would be short-sighted if we only supported people in accessing drinking water. That is enormously important, but we also have to look at the legal framework within which people and communities operate, asking who is responsible for the water supply, for example, or what the ownership structure is. Will the community still have the right to use this water supply in ten years? If not, we have to work together with those affected to achieve that. Or, we have agricultural projects where we help farmers improve their harvests. But do they own the land? In many countries, the land belongs to the state, which can then give it to someone else at any time. That's what happened in Laos. People lost access to their land after generations of government placing profits over lives – and with it, their livelihood. Advocacy means working to ensure that people have fair opportunities in life. Official land rights would be one such opportunity.
Is such commitment possible everywhere?
No. There are countries where the space for civil society engagement is so narrow that we can't raise certain issues. I'm thinking of the rights of homosexual people, which are still taboo in many places. Or of land grabbing in East Africa, where concessions are given to private individuals. The fight can be futile, depending on the balance of power. In countries where the pressure on civil society is very great, we always work together in networks so that no individual person or organization has to expose themselves.
Bernd Steimann, Development Policy Coordinator, Helvetas
How can Helvetas work in fragile or non-democratic states? Isn't that also dangerous?
With a diplomatic approach, many things are possible in such countries. But there are states where no dialogue is possible because an unjust regime is in power. In such cases, political work inside the country is more or less impossible. In fragile contexts such as Haiti, political dialogue of the kind we engage in is also difficult. But development cooperation remains enormously important there.
Who decides on the issues that should be brought to the table?
Helvetas sees itself as a mediator. We don't want to be the foreign organization that comes into the country and says, this law is wrong or this has to change. We support local partner organizations that represent legitimate political concerns, be it with training in political dialogue, with money or with strategy development. The problems must be tackled by those directly affected and brought to the attention of those who make the decisions.
Helvetas also lobbies in Switzerland. Why?
We live in a globalized world, and many political decisions, as well as investment decisions by companies in Switzerland, have a direct or indirect impact on the lives of people in countries of the global South. Here, Helvetas sees itself as a mediator by making the voices of these people heard in Switzerland. There was a popular initiative, for example, demanding the parliament pass a law to prevent arms exports from Switzerland to civil war countries and to countries that systematically violate human rights. The government wanted to grant exceptions. Together with other organizations, we managed to convince the parliament to deny the exceptions. The law that has now been adopted incorporates almost all the demands of the initiative, which is great. This shows: Advocacy works.