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Dossier | Afrique : 50 ans d'indépendance

Switzerland’s relationship with Africa during decolonisation and the beginnings of development cooperation

Marc Perrenoud
Translated by Sarah Jordan
p. 77-93
This article is a translation of:
Les relations de la Suisse avec l’Afrique lors de la décolonisation et des débuts de la coopération au développement [fr]


During the 19th century the Swiss Confederation abstained from participating in colonial expansion. However, the Swiss did take part in this expansion in the wake of European powers. As from the start of the 1960s a new dimension characterised the relationship between Switzerland and Africa: the Confederation organised ODA, in collaboration with private organisations. These activities, favoured by the non-colonial image of Switzerland and managed while dealing tactfully with the great powers, demonstrated Swiss characteristics and evolved according to how events developed on the international stage, with regard to the Cold War in particular. The beginnings of cooperation were steeped in Swiss-centrism and the hope that targeted actions would resolve the difficulties. Convinced of the exemplary value of their economic and political model, the Swiss claimed that their actions were motivated by neutrality and solidarity. However, other neutral countries, such as Sweden, dedicated a much greater proportion of their GNP to cooperation with the Third World. Solidarity seems to play a more important role in Swiss speeches and policies than in the various aspects of external relations. Africa occupies a vital position in Swiss development cooperation, which gives priority to the poorest countries and evolves depending on developments in Switzerland and the rest of the world.

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1. Introduction

1Switzerland’s international position raises questions. Is it a country of banks, the birthplace of the Red Cross, a humanitarian model and an example of generosity? Or is it a self-centred and profiteering power? The particularities of the relationship between Switzerland and Africa emerge from recent historical studies that reach back as far as the 18th century. As from the start of the 1960s a new dimension characterised the relationship between Switzerland and Africa: the Swiss Confederation organised official development assistance (ODA), in collaboration with private organisations. These activities, performed in the name of neutrality and solidarity, demonstrate Swiss characteristics. In order to examine the various historical elements, this article is split into three main parts: Switzerland’s relationship with Africa during decolonisation, the beginnings of ODA and cooperation policy in the 1970s and 1980s.

2. Switzerland’s relationship with Africa during decolonisation

2The Swiss discovered Africa in the 17th century. Mercenaries took part in military operations and sometimes settled in the conquered territories. Businessmen were involved in the slave trade. During the 19th century while European States were building colonial empires the Swiss Confederation abstained from taking part in this territorial expansion. However, the Swiss positioned themselves in the wake of the colonial powers. Traders, industrialists, bankers and farmers participated in the colonisation process. In addition, Swiss missionaries left their country to spread their religious beliefs. They tried to convert the Africans and contributed to anti-slavery movements. Along the same lines, as a reaction to the involvement of Swiss officers, administrators and traders in the arduous colonisation of the Congo by Belgium, intellectuals, for the most part protestant and French-speaking Swiss, launched a movement to defend the indigenous people at the start of the 20th century. As from its establishment on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1828 the Basel Mission was involved in the struggle against the slave trade and, in order to develop other economic activities, favoured cocoa production, which enabled Ghana to become the largest cocoa producer in the world just before the First World War (Franc 2008). As from the second half of the 19th century the geographic coverage of Swiss protestant and catholic missions extended over all of black Africa and North Africa. Their activities were religious, social and cultural (Harries 2007). Opening schools encouraged literacy, especially in rural areas. Sometimes accused of having laid the foundations for the colonisers, the missionaries would teach opposition to the colonial regime in their schools. For example, Eduardo Mondlane (1920-69), founder of the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), and several leaders of this movement were former pupils of Swiss missionaries. They also built hospitals and health centres and provided vocational training to Africans.

  • 1  Cf. Federal Political Department (FPD) report of 23 February 1961, featuring statistics on Swiss e (...)

3As regards trade, the exchanges remained limited. Africa’s share of total exports from Switzerland remained lower than 5% in the 19th and 20th centuries, while imports from Africa reached 3.5% in the best years. However, particular conditions favoured significant economic relations, in particular regarding cocoa for chocolate, Egyptian cotton for textiles and gold from South Africa for the banks. Also, Swiss businessmen worked for French, British, German and Belgian enterprises. Swiss companies developed their activities in Africa during the second half of the 20th century. In 1959 they employed 7,533 people (of whom 311 were Swiss).1 In 2000 this workforce reached 40,451 people (2.3% of the worldwide Swiss workforce), not counting the 19,968 people who worked for Swiss enterprises in South Africa (1.2% of the total).

2.1. Swiss emigrants in Africa

4On the African continent as a whole the number of Swiss (including those of dual nationality) grew from approximately 10,000 in 1945 to more than 17,000 in the year 2000. This number conceals certain disparities. In the1950s Algeria was the country where most Swiss people lived (more than 2,000). This number diminished as from 1954 and then plummeted after independence in 1962. In other African countries the trend is similar, but less marked (Lenzin 1999). After 1945 two countries recorded an increase in the number of Swiss people, i.e. the Belgian Congo until the end of the 1950s (Kaufmann 1993) and South Africa, the only African country to record a continual upward trend in the number of Swiss people settled in its territories; fewer than 1,000 before 1939, they numbered 3,317 in 1955 and 4,325 in 1965. In 1974 almost half of the Swiss people in Africa were settled in South Africa (Perrenoud 2002a). Their numbers exceeded 8,000 during the last two decades of the 20th century. There were other countries where more than 500 Swiss people were resident in 1965: Tanzania (646), Ghana (517) and Nigeria (513) (Lenzin 1999). Therefore, decolonisation involved a geographic shift, in that the African country that attracted most Swiss people was no longer Algeria, but South Africa. Close ties resulted from this which would cause problems for Switzerland in its relations with other African countries, international organisations and anti-apartheid groups (Kreis 2007).

5At the end of the 1950s Swiss settlers in Africa who shared the ideologies of colonial areas were opposed to decolonisation. However, federal policy, set in Bern, had other considerations. Characterised by neutrality, the foreign policy of the Confederation was headed, from 1945 to 1961, by Max Petitpierre (1899-1994). It is common knowledge that he used the maxim “Neutrality and solidarity” to advocate an active policy and promote aid to “underdeveloped countries”. In this perspective the Confederation was committed to projects that were managed from Switzerland or within the framework of international organisations. It strove not to be identified with colonial powers and not to appear as an imperialist country.

6In September 1959 during the annual conference which gathered together the most eminent Swiss diplomats Ambassador Beat von Fischer (1901-84) described the various problems in relations between the major powers, Switzerland and Africa:

What role can Switzerland play in the field of material and technical assistance in Africa? It is clear that on this point we have, as do other countries, a duty of human solidarity, of Christian charity from the rich to the disadvantaged. But do we simply want to salve our conscience? Nor must we deceive ourselves about the fact that the major powers that push so hard for African aid do so for selfish political, strategic and economic interests. We are now witnessing a second conquest of this continent where the interests of the black man as such are not any more respected than they were during the first conquest in the last century. Switzerland must not be too eager to follow this self-interested movement that is tantamount to an implantation of either a civilisation that is Latin-Greek in origin or a materialist or Marxist lifestyle, with which African populations currently have only little affinity and which will very probably lead to the sterilisation or even to a “real butchery of black souls” as many Philafricans have so rightly denounced it. We risk making ourselves responsible for the definitive destruction of the psychic and organic development of a race which also has a right to an independent life. On the other hand, industrialisation is almost always synonymous with proletarianisation and one may ask oneself if our efforts in this sense are not pushing black populations towards communism and demagogy. (…) We would be best served at the moment to concentrate on the areas of education and hygiene. In this field we have the chance to take modest actions but which have a definite and direct purpose. (…) In terms of political education it would be best to promote better awareness of the value of small States, possessed of limited natural resources. At present most African countries fit into this category. For them, Switzerland, with its wealth obtained through work, its independence based on discipline, its religious and linguistic peace obtained through federalism, is a message of hope and a practical example. It is worth popularising this formula because we all have an interest in African countries remaining independent and on the side of Europe. (​15105)

7Telling of the thought patterns in 1959, such affirmations, which were likely to ruffle the feathers of foreign States, were made in the confidential and hushed setting of an internal meeting of the Swiss diplomatic corps. One year later on 9 September 1960 during the annual conference of ambassadors the head of Swiss diplomacy, Max Petitpierre, painted a picture of the international situation. He focused on the expansionist path of the Soviet Union which relied on personalities such as Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba and which created disorder outside the borders of the communist world. Of course, “that is (…) nothing new. But the chances of success of the communists in Africa are much greater than anywhere else, such as in Asia, because all they need is one or two agents to lead entire populations. The head of government exerts a decisive influence” (​15109). According to Petitpierre, Switzerland must associate itself with the efforts of the United Nations (UN) in Africa and participate in the struggle against underdevelopment in order to keep the communist threat at bay. He underlined his concept of neutrality and solidarity:

One point appears to be important to me. We tend to consider that the most urgent aid is economic aid. I think that this is true for many countries, especially those whose population is underfed or which are still unable to exploit their natural wealth. But elsewhere – I am thinking about Africa – it is above all the institutions and frameworks which must form the structure of the State which are lacking. Alongside economic aid, cultural aid is needed. And in this sense I believe that Switzerland has something to offer because of the confidence that its democratic institutions inspire and the manner in which it has overcome the difficulties associated with its diversities. (​15109)

2.2. Bilateral agreements with the new African States

8This policy, which aimed to establish good relations with the different camps during conflicts, would be practised in Africa. The best known example is Switzerland’s role in the Evian negotiations which would lead to the signing of the ceasefire in Algeria (Perrenoud 2002b). It was the Federal Council delegate for trade agreements (Swiss government), Olivier Long (1915-2003), who, acting on a proposal formulated at the end of 1960 by Algerian protagonists in the conflict, established contact with the French government. In utmost secrecy, the Swiss diplomat organised talks in January 1961 that would lead to official negotiations in Evian from May to June 1961. Following the failure of this first attempt Long brought together the participants for secret meetings that finally resulted in the signing of the Evian agreements in March 1962. In fact, the role of the Confederation in negotiations to establish an independent Algeria must be considered in the context of decolonisation. While the emergence of new States in Africa was observed attentively Long was involved in negotiations with these African countries. The perspective of forging economic relations often motivates Swiss solicitude for new leaders.

  • 2  Cf. Swiss Federal Archives (SFA), E 2003-3 (-)1976/44, 155. In this box of archives it is also wor (...)
  • 3  Cf. articles in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 9 May 1960 and 18 June 1960.

9Experts were sent to Africa as from 1960. For example, the Swiss Federation of Watch-Makers Associations sent Gilbert Etienne on a mission from 12 July to 27 August 1960. Etienne went on to write a report on “the perspectives and openings for watch-makers in Sub-Saharan Africa”. He highlighted both the potential of the African market and the risks of increased foreign competition: “Under these conditions, the following alternative presents itself: (a) we follow a policy of laisser-faire by taking as much profit as possible today, even if it means seeing our sales make no headway or diminish later on, or (b) we take defensive measures without waiting for our positions to become seriously undermined.”2 Therefore, he recommended helping countries like Ghana by developing professional watch-making training through private and public means, which would bring Switzerland “an excellent form of publicity”. Other business sectors also showed a keen interest in the new African States. A high-ranking economic civil servant, Edwin Stopper (1912-88), who would preside over the general management of the Swiss National Bank from 1966 to 1974, recommended reinforcing the Swiss presence in Africa and met hundreds of key figures there as from 1960.3

10Guinea, Tunisia and other African countries negotiated with Swiss leaders who were involved in simultaneous negotiations. The wealth of what lies below the surface in Africa was not limited to oil and gas in the Sahara. The mineral resources of Guinea (bauxite, gold and diamonds in particular) attracted Swiss investors who often teamed up with other financial powers (Western in the 1960s, then Arab and Iranian in the 1970s). Large enterprises (active in the banking sector, international trade, aluminium production and the machine and electricity industries) maintained a lasting presence in independent Guinea. However, the internal and external development of the country limited foreign trade because Switzerland was reticent when faced with a regime that proclaimed “socialist” and “revolutionary” objectives and while corruption and chaos took hold.

11Nonetheless, the insistence of Guinean diplomats resulted in a resumption of bilateral negotiations that brought about an agreement covering trade, protection of investments and technical cooperation, signed on 26 April 1962. Development aid was limited to support for vocational training in banks, post offices, journalism and the rural economy (Schuwey 2005). Trade relations remained modest, despite an upturn in investments as from 1974.

  • 4  Cf. Raymond Probst’s report of 10 May 1961 addressed to the Federal Council’s delegate for technic (...)

12On 10 March 1961 the Federal Council appointed Raymond Probst (1919-2001) as the head of the Swiss delegation for Senegal’s independence celebrations and made him responsible for developing contacts with African countries. The diplomat spent from March to May 1961 in various capitals (Dakar, Conakry, Monrovia, Abidjan and Bamako). In his final report Probst painted a positive picture of Switzerland's image in these countries, where Switzerland was considered to be a neutral country, without a colonial past or an imperialist policy.4 The positive image of Switzerland among the Africans allowed Swiss diplomats to forge important contacts. In autumn 1961 the federal authorities held talks with independent Tunisia, anticipating favoured cooperation and technical support between the two countries. Steps to protect investments in Tunisia were taken in agreement with Swiss employers’ organisations (industries, holdings and banks). The constant concern of dealing tactfully with a former colonial power was also seen in relations with Algeria. It was best not to give the impression that the Confederation wanted to take over the market share that France was to relinquish. Despite the possibilities for economic expansion in Africa, Swiss leaders were aware of the economic and political weight of France, which remained one of the main partners of the Confederation. This resulted in great care on the part of the Swiss negotiators to avoid irritating the former colonial power (Perrenoud 2005).

  • 5  In 1969 Switzerland managed to sign agreements covering these three aspects of bilateral relations (...)

13Finalised on 12 March 1962, the trade, protection of investments and technical cooperation agreement with Tunisia was the first of a series of bilateral agreements featuring these three elements. It would serve as a model for documents that were signed in 1962 with Niger, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal.5 As from April 1962, following the signature of the Evian negotiations Long claimed that the Franco-Algerian talks enabled the sympathy that Switzerland benefited from in various countries to increase and that the cost of a few hundred francs incurred by these negotiations represented a good investment with multiple effects, greater than what could be achieved by spending hundreds of millions of francs in the name of aid to underdeveloped countries.

2.3. The multilateral framework

  • 6  Cf. SFA, E 2800/1990/106/ vol. 2, “C.N.” (27 June 1961).

14Switzerland’s relations with African countries were not limited to bilateral exchanges. On a multilateral level Switzerland kept a low profile since it did not belong to the UN, even though Sweden became a member in 1946. However, actions that were decided upon by international organisations have benefited from the support of Swiss diplomacy many times. In June 1961, on the eve of leaving the Federal Council Max Petitpierre summarised his policy before the Foreign Affairs Commission of the National Council in the following formula: “Sending a good expert to the Congo is worth as much as a speech in the UN General Assembly.”6

15Petitpierre was most probably alluding to Victor H. Umbricht (1915-88). This diplomat, who was head of the Federal Finance Administration from 1957 to 1960, resigned in September 1960 to work as a financial adviser for the UN in the Congo. He would leave that country in 1961 at the end of a very eventful mission; but he would remain active in the framework of international organisations, and in southern Africa in particular. His stay in the Congo took place during a series of Swiss activities that resulted from an appeal that was made on 17 July 1960 by the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, to the President of the Confederation, Max Petitpierre, whose positive response was sent that same day (Birri 2007, 56-80, 96-98). The next day, a Swissair aeroplane was on its way to the Congo carrying milk powder. Then, other flights were able to send food aid and transport troops and equipment for the UN. A Swiss medical unit took charge of a hospital in Léopoldville. From 1960 to 1963 other Swiss experts and advisers would leave for the Congo, where their numbers reached 112 in January 1961, within the framework of international organisations. For reasons of security and neutrality, the Swiss authorities limited their bilateral aid to the funding of grants for Congolese students. As from November 1960 the Federal Council proposed the financing of stays in Swiss universities, which would present different problems. From September 1962 the Federal Political Department (FPD) decided to support university training on site, for reasons of efficiency. In 1960 and 1961 private organisations financed a stay in Switzerland for dozens of students from Katanga. As shown by Birri, anti-communist and economic motives characterised Swiss attitudes towards the Congo at the start of the 1960s.

  • 7  Cf. letter of 18 November 1961 from Jean Stroehlin to the FPD: SFA, E 7110/1972/32, vol. 111.

16The Swiss structures for development aid constituted a complex network that had to take many parameters into account (Hug and Mesmer 1993). They also had to act with discretion and develop activities that did not ruffle the feathers of former colonial powers. In November 1961 the Swiss Ambassador to Abidjan, following talks with international civil servants, had to “note that, while it is already very difficult to help developing countries, because it is always delicate to give and to do so advisedly, this becomes a real challenge in the former French and British territories, where Paris and London maintain their influence with a jealousy that makes them oppose the technical assistance from other countries and international organisations”.7

3. The beginnings of Swiss ODA in Africa

  • 8  Cf. statement from the Federal Council of 5 April 1961: SFA, E 2500/1990/6, vol. 69. The words “te (...)
  • 9  During the Biafran war Lindt would be general commissioner of the International Committee of the R (...)

17In the history of Swiss official development assistance (ODA) the year 1959 is noteworthy because of the increase in financial means and the setting up, with the support of the business sector, of the Swiss Foundation for Technical Development Assistance, which became Swisscontact in 1974 (Brugger 1992). This grouping of businessmen and personalities who were active overseas stimulated an increase in donations and the creation of a new entity within the federal administration (Ginalski 2006). Technical cooperation, previously managed by the federal office in charge of industry, trades and labour, was to be managed by the Federal Council’s delegate for technical cooperation, appointed on 17 March 1961 (Matzinger 1991, 190-204). This creation led to the use of new terms: in the 1950s the Federal Council recommended “technical assistance” through messages in parliament. On 5 April 1961 the FPD specified that, following the example of other States, notably the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK) and France, the term “technical assistance” should be abandoned and replaced by that of “technical cooperation”. On one hand, this expression better characterised the international mutual aid to which it referred; and on the other hand, it avoided ruffling the feathers of the developing countries.8 First of all, it was Hans Keller (1908-99) who was charged with coordinating public and private aid (Gerster 1992). From 1963 to 1966 August Lindt (1905-2000) took on this job (Wilhelm et al. 2002). An eminent diplomat, who was UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 1957 to 1960, Lindt would play a considerable role.9 From 1961 to 1965 the FPD was led by Friedrich T. Wahlen (1899-1985), who was Director of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN from 1949 to 1958 and who showed a lasting interest in development policy (Giovannini 1992).

18On 13 June 1961 the Swiss parliament allocated CHF 60 million for technical cooperation over a period of three years, enabling bilateral aid to be increased and, for the first time since 1963, exceed multilateral aid (Renschler 1966). From 1960 to 1964 Asian countries, in particular India and Nepal, benefited from the greatest amounts of Swiss aid.10 Within the federal administration criteria were drawn up in 1963 to select priority countries. A favourable geographical location, the small size of the country and either close economic relations or the presence of an active and interested Swiss colony were the three arguments given, in particular within the influential “permanent economic delegation” that was composed of high-ranking civil servants and representatives from economic circles.11 In the Federal Council's message to the Federal Assembly (i.e. the Swiss parliament) on 29 May 1964 the criteria were specified: “a small country, where aid from Switzerland becomes relatively more important and where the results are more noticeable; the existence of active Swiss colonies; lastly, very close cultural and economic relations, to facilitate collaboration” (FF 1964, 1,090).

19This is how Rwanda became, as from 1963, one of the countries to benefit from considerable aid for a long period of time.12 The Swiss presence was considerable there through the 20th century. André Perraudin was made Bishop of Kabgayi in 1956 and would remain in Rwanda from 1950 to 1993. One of his close collaborators, Grégoire Kayibanda (1924-76), presided over the country from 1962 to 1973. Upon his request, the Swiss made advisers available to the President (Gianella 2002). Having visited the country in 1963 Lindt justified, in September1964, the choice of priority aid to Rwanda, which he considered to be a stable country distinguishing itself from other States through the fact that the government was not wasting public funds on “palaces and Cadillacs”.13 Five Swiss diplomats14 followed, therefore, from1963 to 1975 and a Swiss national would advise the President from 1982 to 1993. This mountainous little country in the middle of a continent, deeply rooted in Christianity, has often been called “the African Switzerland”. Some people have even drawn analogies between the beginnings of the Swiss Confederation and Rwanda, between the Austrian nobility and the Tutsis, between the “mountain people of primitive Switzerland” and the Hutus (Zürcher 2009, 291). Despite the massacres of 1964, Swiss aid remained considerable. The global volume of Swiss cooperation in Rwanda from 1963 to 1993 amounted to CHF 292 million. In 1994 the genocide would cause such trauma that the head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) would charge a study group with analysing and evaluating Swiss activities in that country (Voyame et al. 1996).

20The criteria for concentrating on certain countries sometimes concern issues other than those stipulated in official declarations. This is true in the case of Guinea, which would be favoured at the start of the 1960s. In a report dated 20 May 1964 on “the possibilities for Swiss technical cooperation in French-speaking West Africa” Professor Roy Preiswerk (1934-82) indicated that Guinea was “subject to a quite monstrous sabotage when the French withdrew” and then had a very bad experience with aid provided by communist countries (Schuwey 2005, 42). Switzerland could, therefore, seize opportunities in a country which was both opposed to the former colonial power and disappointed by the services provided by Eastern Europe. However, difficulties would arise and Guinea would not benefit from priority aid from Switzerland any more.

  • 15  In 2008 it merged with the Graduate Institute of International Studies to form the Graduate Instit (...)

21In 1964 the “centres of gravity” for Swiss cooperation were Nepal, India, Rwanda, Turkey and Tunisia. As from 1965 Cameroon and Peru also benefited from priority support, as did Dahomey afterwards. With the subsequent addition of Kenya and Madagascar (in the 1970s), Africa became the continent most favoured by Swiss aid, which also involved financing (mainly African) scholars’ stays in Switzerland. In this context, the Geneva centre devoted to training African executives and diplomats, founded in 1961, became the Geneva Africa Institute in 1962, the Institute of Development Studies in 1973 and the Graduate Institute of Development Studies in 1977.15

22During the 1960s the Confederation strove to contribute to African development because the continent had suffered the longest period of colonisation. In the 1970s Africa was considered to be a priority for Swiss cooperation: “Africa includes a large number of countries which belong to the group of the poorest countries and, because of recent events, which are most affected by the economic crisis. Having become independent with few of their own resources and few qualified executives, and this is the case on all levels, they feel an incredible need for compensation and aid,” according to a high-ranking Swiss civil servant in 1978 (Dannecker 1978, 43).

4. Swiss cooperation policy in the 1970s and 1980s

23During the 1970s the serious drought in Sub-Saharan Africa and the economic crisis determined how aid from the Swiss Confederation was allocated (Forster 1992). As from 1973 Dahomey no longer featured in the priority countries for Swiss cooperation, which increased its services to Sahelian countries. The interaction between aid to the Third World and economic relations with these countries involved complicated contacts between the department responsible for foreign affairs (FPD, subsequently FDFA) and the Department of Economic Affairs (and those responsible for the Trade Division in particular). The authorities decided on closer coordination between those who strove to favour the development of countries of the South and those who favoured promotion of the interests of Swiss enterprises and banks. In addition, the Confederation was confronted with political criticism of its cooperation. Criticism from the right lambasted the waste and recommended budgetary restrictions. Criticism from the left accused public policy of serving Swiss economic interests or compared the sums allocated to the struggle against poverty with the billions managed by the Swiss banks. The latter attracted African capital and managed it as trustees, as shown in the Swiss National Bank statistics indicating the amounts managed per country (Madörin and Ochsner 1998, 146). These numerous differences of opinion had a significant impact on the difficult debates which resulted, on 19 March 1976, in the new federal law on “international development cooperation and humanitarian aid”.

24Criticism continued to be voiced, in particular during the trip to Africa of Federal Councillor Pierre Aubert in January1979. The inauguration of a bridge in Cameroon and visits by the head of Swiss diplomacy to neighbouring countries provoked angry reactions in Switzerland. Key figures criticised him for wasting taxpayers’ money, for going on holiday to Africa and for condemning apartheid (which went against the principle of neutrality. This criticism took on such proportions that they provoked foreign policy debates in the Swiss parliament’s chambers, the National Council on 14 March and the Council of States on 21 March 1979. In addition, heads of African States displeased Swiss leaders. For example, the building programme decided upon in Yamoussoukro by Félix Houphouët-Boigny provoked reactions from parliamentary figures from 1979 to 1981, who considered that these luxury projects were managed to the detriment of the population of Côte d’Ivoire and should not benefit from a federal guarantee for the Swiss enterprises involved in them. Nonetheless, as seen in table 1, the Confederation continued to be committed to Africa. Having decided to contribute to the African Development Fund in 1974, it became a member of the African Development Bank in 1980.

25In 1979 Mozambique became a priority for Swiss aid, which continued to concentrate on the poorest countries (SDC/SECO, 2009). During the 1980s the problems posed by debt became predominant, while the rights of women and minorities, as well as the protection of the environment, became, from that moment onwards, the priorities for federal policy, which strove to take into account the general development of the continent and the lessons learned from previous experiences, which were now subject to much greater scrutiny.

Table 1: Africa’s share of Swiss bilateral technical cooperation and financial aid, 1962-90

Table 1: Africa’s share of Swiss bilateral technical cooperation and financial aid, 1962-90

Sources: Annual Management Reports of the Federal Council (1980-90) and FF (1971, 1,757).

26In its Annual Management Report for 1990 the Federal Council noted that Africa was still the main recipient of Swiss aid:

The past year marked the beginning of a democratic renewal in Africa, but the forms of democracy suitable for the social context still need to be identified by Africans themselves to respect the principles of universal value. The situation with regard to human rights also improved slightly, but there is still a long way to go. If democracy is a precondition for development, it is also true that development can favour democracy.

New trouble spots have appeared (Liberia, Rwanda), while other conflicts have lost their edge (Angola, Mozambique). On the whole, the situation continues to be worrying (Chad, Ethiopia, Sudan, etc.) and development cooperation programmes have had to be adapted as a result (Chad, Mozambique, Rwanda). The refugee problem has become even more insistent.
The sectors of cooperation that are most often maintained are, in East Africa, health (Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar), infrastructure (Tanzania, Rwanda, Madagascar, Kenya), as well as the environment, forestry and agriculture (Rwanda, Madagascar). In West Africa and especially in the Sahel the emphasis is placed on meeting fundamental needs (in particular water supply), aid for self-promotion and the environment (struggle against desertification).
Switzerland pursued its contribution to the efforts of the international community in favour of structural adjustment programmes in some ten countries in Africa. Particular attention was paid to the social costs of these adjustments and any possible corrective measures. (pp.70-71)

27That is how the Swiss government summarised activities after three decades of development cooperation on the African continent. It may be noted that priority countries at the start of the 1960s, such as Tunisia and the Congo, no longer appeared in that category. The terms used and the objectives stated also underwent change. It was no longer a question of cooperation in just one area, region or economic sector; there were now also interventions of a macro-economic nature. In this way, Switzerland strove to relieve countries that were victims of debt, the drop in prices of raw materials, the imbalance of payments and the social effects of programmes recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

28While the Confederation became more involved in international organisations, it allocated means to development cooperation comparable with that of other countries (former colonial powers, neutral countries).

Table 2: ODA from DAC members to developing countries, 1961-71, 1980-85, (in % of GNP)

Table 2: ODA from DAC members to developing countries, 1961-71, 1980-85, (in % of GNP)

Sources: FF (1973, 907; 1987, 120).

29It can be seen in table 2 that, while tending to stay close to the average of members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Switzerland remained among the countries dedicating only a small proportion of gross national product (GNP) to cooperation.

30In 1981 Jacques Forster made a comparative study of two decades and observed that Switzerland, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, regularly featured towards the bottom of the list with regard to ODA. By comparing six small countries, which were very much integrated into the worldwide economy and which were anything but former colonial powers, he noted that, during the 1960s and 1970s, three Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) increased their aid and achieved, and sometimes even exceeded, the objective of 0.7% of GNP. On the other hand, Austria, Finland and Switzerland limited themselves to 0.2% of GNP on average. Switzerland was ranked in first place for GNP per inhabitant and for private capital in the Third World, but in last place for the level of public income in terms of GNP (34%, with Sweden in first place with 57.4%). Therefore, Forster came to the conclusion that these six countries, similar in that they created between 1960 and 1962 legal and administrative instruments for ODA, distinguished themselves by the differences in their efforts in favour of the Third World. This cannot be explained by the economic and financial capability of these countries, but by the degree of acceptance, by very wide social sectors, of the practice of international solidarity. “This degree of acceptance is dependent on the practice of solidarity within national societies. It is further reinforced by the existence, within society, of a widespread and lively debate on the Third World and its connections with the industrialised world, based upon pluralistic and decentralised training and information” (Forster 1981, 14).

31Sweden was situated in the vanguard of the most active countries in international solidarity, whereas Switzerland, a liberal country where the State plays a reduced role and where nationalist attitudes pervade society, remained among the countries that dedicate only a small proportion of GNP to ODA.

5. Conclusion

32This overview of the relationship between Switzerland and Africa over half a century raises many questions. The beginnings of cooperation were marked by a “Swiss-centred character” (De Dardel 1981, 365) and the hope that targeted actions and the example of Switzerland would resolve any problems. Convinced of the exemplary value of their economic and political model, the Swiss claimed that their actions were motivated by neutrality and solidarity. They aimed to occupy particular niches that the former colonial powers were either unable or unwilling to occupy. These activities had to be both discreet in order to not irritate the large Western powers and effective in order to raise Switzerland’s profile in Africa. Therefore, it was necessary to coordinate efforts (public and private) and to concentrate on a few promising countries. This solidarity can also be seen in the context of the Cold War. The Swiss authorities considered that Africa ran a great risk of falling into the communist camp. They hoped that Swiss cooperation with the new leaders would convince the latter of the superiority of political liberalism and market economics.

33However, other neutrals dedicated a greater proportion of their GNP to cooperation with the Third World between 1960 and 1980.

34Among the Swiss particularities, the financial market plays a central role. It contributes to the increase in Swiss GNP (which reduces the percentage of ODA in the DAC statistics). It implies that transactions that run into hundreds of millions, even billions, of Swiss francs are carried out in Switzerland or through Swiss financial institutions.

35It was only in 1991, when the President of Mali, Moussa Traoré, was toppled, accused by the Malian press of enormous misappropriation of funds, that the FDFA took the unprecedented decision to financially support steps taken by the Malian government to find and recover the public capital that had allegedly found its way into Switzerland.

36The course of the 1990s was determined by the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The new international situation brought change. Switzerland joined the IMF and the World Bank in 1992, after the referendum on development aid organisations, which had criticised the antisocial effects of the policy of international financial institutions, was rejected. Previously, such cooperation had been favoured since the 1950s. And it was only in 2002 that Switzerland took an extra step and joined the UN, of which Sweden had been a member since 1946. During the 1990s developments in countries such as Rwanda and South Africa also contributed to calling Swiss policies in Africa into question.

37For decades Switzerland has presented itself as a willing model for Africans and Europeans. Of course, its prosperity and its federalism attract admiration, but it is not certain that Switzerland is as appreciated and generous as it claims to be. Solidarity seems to play a more important role in Swiss speeches and policies than in external economic relations. The Swiss business community is interested in African countries in a selective and unbalanced manner.

38At the beginning of the 1960s the whole of the African continent attracted attention. Then, countries like South Africa and Zaire seemed to monopolise the limelight, while ODA concentrated on the poorest countries. The resulting differences of opinion and inequalities between the various countries and the many players provided the context allowing Africa to occupy a vital place in Swiss development cooperation.

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Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse (Historical Dictionary of Switzerland), containing articles on relations with Africa and African countries, as well as biographical and subject-related articles, particularly on “development cooperation”.

Documents diplomatiques suisses (Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland), online database with documents and information on Swiss foreign relations until the 1960s.

Swiss Federal Archives (SFA), with digitised official publications, in particular the Feuille fédérale, containing messages and reports from the Federal Council to the Federal Assembly, 1848-2008, as well as the Bulletin officiel de l’Assemblée fédérale containing minutes of the sessions of the National Council and the States Council, 1971-95.

Swiss National Bank, with international financial relations information and information on those active in Swiss companies abroad.

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1  Cf. Federal Political Department (FPD) report of 23 February 1961, featuring statistics on Swiss economic relations with underdeveloped countries:

2  Cf. Swiss Federal Archives (SFA), E 2003-3 (-)1976/44, 155. In this box of archives it is also worth noting the report of July 1961 from the Central Secretary of the Swiss Federation of Metal-Workers and Watch-Makers, André Ghelfi (1921-96), addressed to the Committee of the Swiss Workers Help Group, entitled “Mission to French-speaking countries of black Africa”.

3  Cf. articles in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 9 May 1960 and 18 June 1960.

4  Cf. Raymond Probst’s report of 10 May 1961 addressed to the Federal Council’s delegate for technical cooperation: SFA, E 2003-3 (-)1976/44, 155. Cf. also his report of 15 May 1961:

5  In 1969 Switzerland managed to sign agreements covering these three aspects of bilateral relations (trade, protection of investments, technical cooperation) with 25 countries.

6  Cf. SFA, E 2800/1990/106/ vol. 2, “C.N.” (27 June 1961).

7  Cf. letter of 18 November 1961 from Jean Stroehlin to the FPD: SFA, E 7110/1972/32, vol. 111.

8  Cf. statement from the Federal Council of 5 April 1961: SFA, E 2500/1990/6, vol. 69. The words “technical assistance” feature in the titles of messages from the Federal Council of 14 February 1951, 28 March 1952, 24 September 1954, 14 July 1956 and 25 August 1959.

9  During the Biafran war Lindt would be general commissioner of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Africa (1968-69). He later became adviser to the President of Rwanda (1973-75).

10  Cf. and

11  Cf. session of 18 September 1963: SFA, E 2003-3/1976/44, 16.

12  Cf.,,,

13  Cf. Lindt’s report during the ambassadors’ conference of 4 September 1964:

14  From 1966 to 1968 this position was occupied by Marcel Heimo, who would lead the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) from 1974 to 1982.

15  In 2008 it merged with the Graduate Institute of International Studies to form the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

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List of illustrations

Title Table 1: Africa’s share of Swiss bilateral technical cooperation and financial aid, 1962-90
Caption Sources: Annual Management Reports of the Federal Council (1980-90) and FF (1971, 1,757).
File image/png, 26k
Title Table 2: ODA from DAC members to developing countries, 1961-71, 1980-85, (in % of GNP)
Caption Sources: FF (1973, 907; 1987, 120).
File image/png, 46k
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Cite this article

Bibliographical reference

Marc Perrenoud, “Switzerland’s relationship with Africa during decolonisation and the beginnings of development cooperation”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement, 1 | 2010, 77-93.

Electronic reference

Marc Perrenoud, “Switzerland’s relationship with Africa during decolonisation and the beginnings of development cooperation”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 1 | 2010, Online since 11 March 2010, connection on 24 June 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Marc Perrenoud

Historian and scientific adviser for the publication of Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland (database: and is responsible for writing articles on relations with African countries and on other aspects of Swiss international relations for the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.

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International Development Policy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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