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Switzerland humanitarian practice has been shaped by various events during its history. The protection of protestant refugees during the 16th century, the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross followed by the creation of the Geneva conventions, as well as the settlement of several United Nations Agencies in Geneva made Switzerland one of the major centres of multilateral cooperation.

health, nutrition, protection
children, women, youth
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For the 2013-2016 period, humanitarian aid operations of the SDC has earmarked more than CHF 2 billion in humanitarian aid for those most in need.

Scope of involvement


The Swiss agency for development has every year priority countries where it operates. In 2014, there are 20 priority countries and regions for bilateral Development Cooperation and 12 focus areas for Humanitarian aid, mainly in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

NGOs based in Switzerland usually operate in areas all around the globe depending on the needs of the population.


Turning point

One major shift in the history of modern humanitarianism was due to the work of Henri Dunant and the creation of the International Committee for relief to wounded soldiers in 1863, which would become the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It promoted a legal framework for humanitarian action between States with the Geneva Conventions.

Even if Switzerland joined the UN only in September 2002, it has been an active and innovative member. Geneva is the main seat of the United Nations in Europe and, with New York, is one of the two major centres of multilateral cooperation.


Types of stakeholders

NGO in general

There are as well thousands of NGOs with headquarters in the country. Few of them are focused on pure humanitarian action. Mostly, they combine humanitarian and development aid. The biggest are Terre des Hommes, Helvetas, MSF-Switzerland, MDM-Switzerland. One of the current trends in Switzerland is to ensure the sustainability of the activities and services on the ground through linking emergency aid with medium and long-term programs. Within the main organizations, we as well observe an important effort on the implementation of Quality processed accountability mechanisms and responsibility procedures. There is a tendency to develop tools to measure the effects and impacts of the action and not only the activities.

Red Cross movement

The main international organization is the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) which is atypical as it is neither a State agency nor a NGO. The International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) also has its headquarters in Geneva.

Private Sector

The private sector is very active. It was at the origins of the federal initiative for cooperation in the 1950s; major Swiss companies now invest in international aid or development.

State Humanitarianism

Legal framework

The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs delivers humanitarian aid through the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). The budgets and objectives of humanitarian aid and development are clearly separated.

For the period from 2013 to 2016, SDC has four priorities:

  • Greater protection of the civilian population in armed conflict
  • Greater influence and participation at the inter¬national level
  • Stronger presence in the field
  • Strengthening of measures to prevent disasters and reduce risks

In programs where Switzerland is a member or an observer of a governing body, the SDC is involved in the elaboration of budgets and the planning of activities, monitors reports, and defends its values and interests. It also conducts field visits to assess the progress of the programs. SDC consults its partners and other stakeholders in the humanitarian field. Internal and external evaluations are regularly conducted. The Humanitarian Aid of the Swiss Confederation is evaluated by the OECD/DAC every four years.

The Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) is the operational arm of the humanitarian aid provided by the Confederation, one of the four departments of the SDC. It is involved in protecting the interests of vulnerable population groups prior to, during and after periods of conflict, crises or natural disasters.

  • The SHA is not only mobilized for emergencies but also for medium to long-term projects. SHA experts are also placed at the disposal of partner organizations of the United Nations.
  • Two thirds of the humanitarian aid budget fund programs conducted by international organizations. About half of this amount is directed to the ICRC and the other half to programs of UN or¬ganizations. Depending on the needs, Switzerland can also partner with NGOs and other international organizations.
  • Swiss Rescue, which is composed of eight partner organizations, can be rapidly deployed following an earthquake.
  • The Confederation supplies food aid in 38 countries via more than 22 Swiss relief agencies and the UN’s World Food Program (WFP).

Specific roles of international organizations

European Commission

Switzerland is not a member of European Union. But it is involved in the development policy debate of the donor countries. Within the Development Assistance Committees (DAC), Switzerland is in direct contact with the EU. Switzerland has also been collaborating with the European Centre for Development Policy Management, which is independent from the EU.

United Nations

Switzerland has a strong involvement in the programs of the United Nations, especially WFP, UNHCR, UNICEF and UNOCHA.

International Committee of the Red Cross

Due to the history and location of the ICRC, there’s a strong link between this institution and Switzerland. One of the priorities of the SDC in terms of humanitarian action is the protection of the civilian population in armed conflict. Switzerland is therefore an active supporter of ICRC.

Specific focus

Linking Relief Rehabilitation Development

Most NGOs active in the humanitarian field which are based in Switzerland also have long term programs, which lead them to carefully take into account the development aspects of their aid.

The SDC also puts emphasis on that matter. The Swiss Humanitarian Aid department focuses on emergency aid, the reconstruction and rehabilitation of disaster-stricken areas, and disaster risk reduction. It places the victims at the centre of its engagement in a spirit of neutrality, independence and impartiality. Swiss Humanitarian Aid aims to ensure the sustainability of its commitment on the ground through linking emergency aid with medium- and long-term programs.

Civil Protection

As it has the protection of the civilian population in armed conflict as one of its main priorities, the Humanitarian Unit of the SDC intends to promote the respect of Geneva conventions and the safety of civilians.

One of the other four priorities is as well the strengthening of measures to prevent disasters and reduce risks, trying to tackle the causes of events that could affect vulnerable populations.

Humanitarian Education

Higher education

Centre for research and Studies in Humanitarian Action (CERAH): Diplomas of advanced studies in Humanitarian Action, Master of advanced studies in humanitarian action, Certificate of advanced studies in humanitarian action (Communication & Advocacy, Project cycle management, disaster risk management, health in humanitarian emergencies, people management, legal environment of humanitarian action).

In-house training

Important organizations develop their own training unit in order to connect individual and collective learning process within their organization (MSF-CH, ICRC, UNHCR, etc).

Specialised organizations

Cinfo: Centre for Information, Counselling and Training for Professions relating to International Cooperation (www.cinfo.ch)




Dr Edith Favoreu
Dr Valérie Gorin
Adrien Genoud

Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action

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