YES program in Tanzania | © Franz Thiel/Helvetas

Looking Back on the International Cooperation Forum 2023: An Interview with Diepak Elmer

BY: Jane Carter - 21. February 2023
© Franz Thiel/Helvetas

Diepak Elmer is a busy man. This is not his observation (although he does not deny it), but one made by a colleague at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). Under the reorganized SDC, Diepak is Co-Head of the new Economy and Education Section – comprising a large team with a wide thematic portfolio. He was also a key person behind the organization of the recent IC Forum, which took place February 15-16 on the topic of “Education4Future.” An important topic, Diepak notes, not only as a basic human right under Sustainable Development Goal 4 on universal access to primary and secondary education for girls and boys, but also because it is fundamental as an enabler for realizing so many other sustainable development goals.

The IC Forum brought together around 750 people face-to-face in Geneva, plus around the same number online. Highlighting just a few major points from such an intensive exchange risks over-simplification, but our discussion focuses around three main areas.

Equipping young people with different skills for the future 

The world is changing rapidly, and the future looks increasingly perilous given the threats posed by climate change, pandemics such as COVID-19, and political fragility. The digital age offers new opportunities as well as new uncertainties. New learning systems are needed that make education both more inclusive and more resilient, teaching young people critical thinking, adaptability, and teamwork. “Soft” skills such as compassion, empathy, communicating emotions – even love – were spoken of frequently.

«Our future depends on the youth of today, and their future depends on what they learn today.»

Diepak Elmer, Economy and Education Co-Head, SDC

Diepak recalls various emotional moments that will stay with him, such as a young woman, Charlotte Qin, who was in tears as she expressed the fear that due to climate change, her children will never see the wonders of nature that she has observed. It is already an indication of changing times that such a display of feeling is taken seriously and not dismissed as “a loss of control,” as might have been the case in the past. Charlotte was among over 60 Youth Ambassadors who participated over the two days, meeting with Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis for breakfast on the second day. The presence of many young people and the platform given to them was emphasized by SDC Director-General Patricia Danzi, who said, “We don’t want to talk about young people; we want to talk with them.” And those who were present spoke powerfully.

The increasing role of the private sector

The IC Forum participants represented a broad alliance of many different stakeholders – not only the usual public agencies and NGOs such as Helvetas that partner with SDC, but also research institutions, private foundations, the financial sector, and other private sector entities. It makes sense, of course, for the private sector to take an active role in education; it needs future workers with appropriate skills. Ultimately, Diepak insists, education is a societal issue, and the skills needed for tomorrow are not only those taught in the classroom but especially in the world of work. Here, Switzerland has a long-established tradition of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) that is highly relevant and is already being supported by SDC in many countries; examples highlighted at the Forum included projects in Bolivia, Niger and Ukraine. A market stall at the Forum allowed 28 organizations to present their activities in far more countries and to exchange key lessons learned.

More investment in education, including through new financial mechanisms, formed a common thread through many discussions. Here Diepak noted the presence of the Zurich Cantonal Bank (ZKB in its German acronym), which following exchanges at the 2022 World Economic Forum, WEF, pledged to establish a new mutual fund whose proceeds will go to supporting education in emergency situations. The details are still under discussion, but the initiative represents an interesting and promising financial model for the future.

A strong Swiss commitment for education at the development-humanitarian nexus

It was no accident that the IC Forum was arranged back-to-back with the UN High Level Financing Conference, Education Cannot Wait, which took place on February 16-17 and was co-hosted by and co-organized with Switzerland as well. Humanitarian crises around the globe seem only to grow, with millions displaced from their homes. The recent massive earthquake in Turkey and Syria served to focus minds on the relevance of the topic, given the situation of the surviving children. All of them traumatized, some of them orphaned, living in precarious situations with their schools either destroyed or turned into shelters. Without significant support, their education will be disrupted for years, if not forever. Humanitarian crises, whether caused by earthquakes, war, drought or other reasons, can potentially leave a whole generation poorly educated, with huge negative impacts on individuals and societies many years later.

For Switzerland, the nexus between development and humanitarian assistance takes an important place in its international education policy as well. Geneva is fast becoming a Global Hub for Education in Emergencies following the establishment of a center with this name, which has further attracted other like-minded organizations to come to Switzerland. The trend is well noted by Swiss NGOs based elsewhere, including Helvetas.

But to leave the last words to Diepak:

“Our future depends on the youth of today, and their future depends on what they learn today. We are taking the IC Forum as a starting point to get public and private actors together to jointly invest in making education systems more resilient and fit for the future.” 

Education and Vocational Skills

Lack of education perpetuates inequality because poor countries cannot compete economically without a skilled workforce.


Young people are a tremendous asset, but also a possible threat when denied access to labor markets, services and decision-making. Almost every second unemployed person is aged between 15 and 24.