Interview with Ambassador Ruth Huber, SDC Vice-Director, Head of Department Cooperation with Eastern Europe
Valeriu Vasilică, IPN: Mrs. Huber, you had a visit planned to Moldova this month to celebrate 20 years anniversary of Swiss-Moldova cooperation, but the visit was cancelled owing to Covid pandemic. Still, the interest in Moldova is there. Why does Switzerland have such a significant presence in our country and why for 20 years?
Ruth Huber: First of all, I regret that I am unable to travel to your country in the current circumstances, but I am glad to be able to address many of our Moldovan partners thanks to this timely interview!
20 years may seem a long time, but long-term commitment to our partner countries is a characteristic of the Swiss Development Cooperation. Just in September the Swiss Parliament adopted the International Cooperation strategy for 2021-2024, where it confirmed that Moldova remains a priority country of our bilateral cooperation. Parliament based its decision on the following considerations: the needs in a partner country, for example persisting poverty and inequalities; the Swiss interests, for instance in social and economic development and stability in a specific region; and the difference Switzerland can make through its development program. This last point depends largely on the collaboration with local partners and the willingness of the partner Government to implement reforms.
IPN: What values does Switzerland promote in its international cooperation and what are your approaches in your work? How do you understand the added value of Switzerland in a country like Moldova?
Ruth Huber: Firstly, Switzerland’s international cooperation is an expression of solidarity, which is a governing principle of our country’s interaction with the international community. It is also a reflection of the interdependence between all parts of the world.
Another important principle, defined in the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, is “Leaving no one behind”. In our development programme in Moldova we pursue a strong focus on social inclusion. This means that if one single member of a group faces stigma or discrimination – be it on ethnic, mental, gender or disability grounds –, if he or she does not enjoy the same chances or access to quality public services, then vulnerabilities need to be addressed through effective programming.
IPN: Switzerland is one of the largest bilateral donors in health. What impact did the COVID crisis have on SDC in general and particularly in Moldova?
Ruth Huber: All countries on the globe, including Switzerland, have been heavily affected by the impact of Covid-19 pandemic. In Moldova, I’m proud to say that the Swiss Cooperation Office was among the first international partners to provide protective equipment and ventilators to the Moldovan health system. Our team also provided support in the area of mental health, communication and sensitisation about Covid-19 and the purchase of equipment for local public authorities and institutions. All in all, Switzerland supported Moldova’s efforts to fight the pandemic with an amount of 857’000 Swiss francs.
But the pandemic also has socio-economic consequences. Our team in Chisinau adjusted ongoing programmes in different thematic domains of our cooperation, in order to respond to new challenges.
I would like to give an example from the Economic Development and Employment area, where one of the companies in Soroca, a beneficiary in a project co-funded by SDC and Germany, moved on from sewing car covers to sewing protective gowns for healthcare specialists. Through this adaptation jobs could be saved and even new ones created.
IPN: Moldova remains one of the poorest countries in the region and as you know many Moldovan chose to leave their home country to work abroad. Everyone in Moldova is affected by migration. Switzerland supported initiatives that bring the diaspora closer to their communities in spite of the distance. What worked, what results were achieved and why so?
Ruth Huber: The challenges derived from large outmigration flows are a common concern to many Eastern Europe countries. There are always two sides in that complex equation: on one hand the temporary and long-term loss of skills and knowledge for your country, on the other hand the potential of using remittances from Moldovans working abroad.
Together with UNDP, we took an innovative approach to bring the diaspora closer to their relatives and communities by building “hometown associations of migrants”, training and assisting LPAs in transparency and involvement of communities in budgetary decisions. This collaboration led to local development projects co-funded through budget allocations from LPAs, contribution and crowdfunding from migrants and grants from SDC. This innovative funding model is now continuing without project support.
But looking at the migration challenge in general, it is also important to strengthen some services and legislations that encourage people to stay or benefit returning diaspora, as well as to work on opportunities for the youth.
IPN: 20 years ago, Switzerland came to Moldova with humanitarian aid, you have then supported Moldova to improve its water and sanitation services, brought Moldova diaspora closer to their hometown and supported many reforms in the health sectors. You are known to support initiatives at local level and now also the vocational education system and job creation. What results are you most proud of and what do you hope Moldova to achieve?
Ruth Huber: Some results reached in these twenty years are remarkable. I would like to stress that they were always achieved with our local partners and that the most impressive ones were achieved by Moldovans actively helping other Moldovans: For instance, when youth volunteer groups supported elderly people throughout the country during COVID-19 lockdown. Fostering inter-generational solidarity is a concrete example of leaving no one behind!
Vocational education and training is an area supported by SDC in many of our partner countries, based on the important and positive contribution of vocational skills development to the Swiss economy. We believe that it is most important for young people to get skills needed in a modern world, to get chances to practice their skills in labs with proper equipment or in institutions with healthy practices and proper institutional culture and values.
IPN: The SDC works in Moldova but also Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan, countries that at different levels show corruption political instability, how do you make sure your assistance reaches its objectives?
Ruth Huber: The Swiss Cooperation takes a long term approach, always aiming at responding to the needs of the final beneficiaries, who are often the most vulnerable. Our strategic orientations are decided based on a dialogue with the government, the civil society and other development partners, to make sure that we respond to the needs and priorities of the country.
Another important characteristic is that we don’t provide “one size fits all” solutions, but pay much attention to maintain the flexibility to adapt programmes to changes in the context and circumstances. And in addition to our internal control system, complemented by external project audits, our projects include a social accountability mechanism to get the views of beneficiaries.
IPN: Switzerland in Moldova often refers to social inclusion in its public communication– be it connection to Water and Sanitation systems of vulnerable groups, be it training to women form rural areas or mediators for Roma communities. Why this focus on social inclusion?
Ruth Huber: Social inclusion refers to social, cultural, political and economic dimensions and, as stated earlier, it is an important element of the Agenda 2030 and of the SDGs. Addressing social exclusion is an urgent concern to reach sustainable development, since inequalities have increased across and within countries due to the acceleration of rising global challenges and other factors such as conflicts and climate change.
In Moldova, just like in many other countries worldwide, there are wide disparities in access to water and sanitation services across different regions and groups of people, between wealth quintiles, between urban and rural areas, within communities, and at household level. In this area we work in close cooperation with public authorities and other stakeholders, to prioritize on those groups of people who are excluded from access and use of public services, and in decision-making processes related to them.
In the countries of the Western Balkans and Central Eastern Europe SDC also promotes the inclusion of Roma groups, since this ethnic group is the most excluded and faces the repercussions of a long-lasting historical discrimination. In Moldova, as part of our efforts to support advocacy of civil society towards more inclusive policies, we support the Roma NGO network in its efforts to improve the lives of Roma people and solve their community problems. We supported Roma mediators and their association to get state and LPAs support, to get equitable public services, to participate in local decision-making and in employment.
IPN: Switzerland offered support to 120 non-governmental organizations and offered over 150 small grants, out of which half for support of cultural life. Why is culture so important to development?
Ruth Huber: Culture is an important component of our cooperation programmes around the world. I am proud to state that Switzerland is a major grant provider to culture in Moldova. Supporting culture is an essential part of human dignity, identity, individual and collective fulfilment. Support for cultural diversity and inter-cultural dialogue is crucial for social cohesion, and nation-building processes.
Our Cooperation Office in Chisinau is managing a small grants program to support innovative initiatives of local NGOs as well as projects in culture and arts, encouraging the freedom and diversity of artistic expression, pluralism, the rural-urban dialogue, and social inclusion. So far, we have been witnessing interesting results: some of the projects created good practice models of social and economic inclusion of disadvantaged groups, others promoted innovative non-formal approaches to education The supported projects also helped culture professionals explore new forms of contemporary art and create resource centres, e.g. online platform in cinematography, a centre of contemporary music or an online library of Gagauz literature.
As a response to the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, our Cooperation Office in Chisinau recently supported innovative cultural projects transferring arts onto the digital space through a virtual reality arts gallery promoting contemporary art and organising online art auctions for impoverished artists.
To conclude, I’m looking forward to the fruitful continuation of our cooperation program with Moldova in all the mentioned areas and to the opportunity to visit your country as soon as possible!