When an organization unveils a new strategic plan it can be difficult for people to decipher what is most important about this guiding document. Remo Gesù, director of Helvetas’ international programs, shares his insights on what this strategy truly means for Helvetas’ work over the next few years and our role in the global development community.
Helvetas has shepherded much change over the organization’s 60 years supporting international development work around the world. As we roll out the new Helvetas Strategy for 2021-2024 and prioritize the topic areas we’ll focus on, what are some of the biggest development challenges we face?
Enormous development progress has been made in recent decades, especially in economic terms. The number of people living in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day has decreased from about 40% in 1981 to 10% in 2015. But from 2015 onward progress on combating poverty has stagnated. Also, due to the Covid crisis, it is anticipated that the number of extremely poor people will again rise significantly – from about 600 million to almost one billion, according to the OECD.
We have learned that development achievements are not always sustainable. Gains accomplished can be undone by new or different challenges. For instance, past economic development has largely come at the expense of the environment and climate. The subsequent degradation of natural resources has contributed to food insecurity and hunger. At the same time, armed conflicts, fragile contexts with weak governments, inequality and rapid urbanization have increased and are all contributing to poverty.
There are clearly many challenges that need to be addressed to achieve long-term impact.
Indeed. In its new strategy, Helvetas commits itself to support the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, which links the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development and the associated targets for both developing and developed countries.
The strategy encompasses three working areas. First, we want to ensure – together with our local partners – that poor and marginalized people have access to clean water, food and natural resources and that they gain climate resilience in both rural and urban settings. In addition to fulfilling these basic rights, we’ll focus on economic development by connecting young people to vocational education and decent employment.
To ensure our development inputs are sustainable, we need strong local actors and institutions that consider the needs and rights of poor and marginalized populations. Helvetas and its partners also strengthen the capacities of public authorities and institutions to deliver inclusive services and apply democratic policies. It is critical for civil society and local communities, and in particular women, to participate in decision-making processes. Thus, Voice, Inclusion and Cohesion is the third working area for Helvetas. There is no magic solution to alleviate poverty, but addressing these challenges from different angles increases the chances for lasting effects.
Helvetas’ work with partners is a foundational element of our engagement around the world. What types of partnerships are critical for achieving the goals set out in the Helvetas Strategy 2021-24?
From its onset in the 1950s, Helvetas has had the core credo that development can only be successful and sustainable if local actors, organizations and institutions are at the steering wheel and own the projects we jointly conduct. All of Helvetas’ 250-plus projects are implemented with or through local partners; Helvetas assumes direct implementation only for tasks that cannot yet be executed by local entities.
We also see a main role for our organization in capacitating partners. Helvetas seeks out nontraditional collaborations, bringing together partners from different sectors. For instance, vocational training programs are typically paired with enterprises that ensure labor market orientation and employability. They are integrated in national skills programs, which guarantees alignment with and recognition by government, and are often supported by youth groups that encourage peers to join the trainings. These multi-stakeholder initiatives ensure a more holistic and sustainable approach, and will gain even more relevance in the strategic period from 2021-24.
In recent years there has been much discussion about the evolving roles of organizations working in international development, with the consensus being that INGOs can offer more value as knowledge brokers rather than implementers. How does the new strategy reflect this shifting approach to development?
Helvetas is increasingly playing an intermediary role that focuses on supporting and strengthening local partners rather than providing direct service delivery or project execution. With the exception of fragile and conflict situations with non-functioning state structures and civil society, the shift towards a facilitating role will become even more important in the future. In the next years, we will further emphasize the capacitation of local partners in a more holistic manner. The aim is to assist their evolution into strong professional and self-reliant organizations that are change agents of development. To achieve this, we will support them in strengthening their competences not only in technical aspects, but also in management and organizational matters.
Helvetas will also more strongly engage in facilitating and moderating exchanges between different development actors, and will promote spaces for regular interactions and recurring knowledge sharing. As an international organization with privileged access to global networks, Helvetas has an important role in brokering connections from the local to international level, and vice versa.
Can you share an example of how Helvetas’ programs are bringing innovative approaches to development?
In light of the rapid digital transformation that is taking place in our partner countries – whereby more people in Africa have access to mobile phones than to clean water – the new strategy now explicitly seeks to systematically use digitalization opportunities in all our programs to increase the impact of our development work.
Helvetas has already developed numerous innovative products that leverage digital technology for development solutions. In Serbia, Helvetas facilitated the introduction of an IT-based information system that links all tax data of Serbian municipalities and allows citizens to access their tax information and make online payments. This innovation has drastically improved the efficiency and quality of government services.
Digital learning has also experienced a boost during the COVID crisis that forced students to stay at home. In Myanmar, Helvetas digitized vocational skills courses for different occupations, such as motorbike repair, allowing students to access courses online and offline via their mobile phones. Digital learning offers students greater flexibility to learn at any time and at their own pace and gives access to young people in remote areas, especially women, who cannot visit a training center.
What are some milestones we hope to have achieved when we reflect back on the success of this strategy in 2024?
Given the fact that more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and urbanization will further increase, especially in developing countries, Helvetas decided to expand its engagement from rural areas to semi-urban and urban contexts. Pilot projects addressing some of the most pressing urban development challenges have been launched. By the end of 2024, we expect the majority of our country programs to also address the challenges posed by urbanization through concrete projects and actions.
Another target concerns our support to young people, which will be strengthened significantly during this strategy phase. Two-thirds of the global poor are either children or youth. Youth unemployment, political disengagement, and violent extremism are important development challenges that we aim to tackle in a stronger manner.
Finally, in many contexts where Helvetas works, fragility and simmering conflicts can quickly escalate into a crisis, and climate change has made natural disasters, such as droughts and floods, even more likely. Helvetas has systematically increased its engagement in humanitarian response, with a strong focus on the nexus approach that links humanitarian relief and rehabilitation work with longer-term development perspectives. By 2024, we expect to have further professionalized and increased our role in responding to these growing crises.