An Interview with Ambassador Martin Dahinden

by Forum Staff

Ambassador Martin Dahinden is currently the designated Swiss Ambassador to the United States and served as the Director-General at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation since 2008. Previously, he headed the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affair’s Directorate of Corporate Management, after having worked as Director of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining from 2000 to 2004. Ambassador Dahinden entered the diplomatic service in 1987. He has held assignments in Geneva as member of the Swiss Delegation to GATT, at the Swiss Embassy in Paris, as Deputy to the Swiss ambassador in Nigeria, and was temporarily posted at the Swiss Mission to the UN in New York. At the Head Office of the FDFA in Bern, he worked at the Service for Disarmament Policy and Nuclear Issues, as Head of the OSCE Service of Political Affairs Division I, and held the post of Deputy Head of the OSCE Coordination Unit during the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE in 1996. 

In a conversation with The Fletcher Forum, Ambassador Dahinden discusses the nexus between humanitarianism and diplomacy while calling for sustainable, innovative approaches to development work in fragile states. He also touches on the international community’s response to the Syria crisis and the challenges that humanitarian organizations face in addressing long-term conflicts. 

FLETCHER FORUM: Looking at your experience delivering aid and humanitarian work for the Swiss government, what have you seen as major trends in the way that aid delivery is changing?

DAHINDEN: I would mention two trends. One trend is that humanitarian law is basically respected, it’s universally recognized, but the implementation is weak. There are a lot of violations and many of those violations go unpunished. Another trend, that I consider more short-term, is the enormous number of humanitarian crises: Syria, Iraq, South Lebanon, and Central African Republic…we almost never have had so many emergencies in the same time. To this, you can add emergencies the UN is less involved in, like the Ukraine, the reconstruction of Gaza; while not linked to a conflict, Ebola, is a major crisis as well. The humanitarian system as such is under significant stress…we desperately try to reallocate resources, send people into the field and find ways to strengthen international humanitarian organizations.

FLETCHER FORUM: You have advocated that there should be a greater connection between humanitarian work and development work. Dr. Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaking at The Fletcher School earlier in the year, addressed the need for an innovative approach to combining humanitarianism and diplomacy. From your perspective, what would this mean in practice?

MD: Once there was a clear idea of a conflict cycle, and what action would be needed in each stage—starting with preventive diplomacy to robust crisis management, humanitarian aid, recovery, and so on. What we see more and more are protracted crises, situations where you have a long-term humanitarian emergency. Look at the Horn of Africa, for twenty years there was conflict, drought, lack of economic perspectives…it is not really an option to stay there for decades with humanitarian aid to feed people, to provide shelter. This calls to adapt the instruments, bring different elements together and to reshape them: Diplomacy has to play an important role by addressing geopolitical interests of neighboring countries or powers outside a region—but also diplomacy to bring key players together and trying to find a solution.

Humanitarian aid and development cooperation need to come closer. During a protracted crisis we cannot limit support to humanitarian aid but need to support economic development and state-building. This is something that we all know is essential, but we do not really know how. We will not eventually come up with a template or some sort of a business model. We need to look at specific situations and then try to come up with solutions that involve the major stakeholders.

FLETCHER FORUM: Bringing that level of specificity to one of the worst crises we’re seeing today in Syria, what are your thoughts on the role the international community should be playing in terms of humanitarian assistance and what needs to happen to enable that response?

DAHINDEN: What we have seen in the last two years, as the humanitarian crisis was unfolding, there was a major effort by the international community to provide humanitarian assistance but the gap is still widening. The problem is the lack of a political solution. We cannot close it by providing humanitarian aid. To some extent humanitarian aid is dealing rather with the effect of the crisis. Unfortunately I must say, the efforts, the attempts, particularly by the United Nations have not been successful thus far. Syria is also a very difficult case because it is basically a regional conflict.

(On access concerns in Syria): …I think progress has been made. We are not where the international community should be but it’s much more possible now to have access. This has improved. But as I said, given the fighting that is going on, the atrocities in the field, we might have better access in many areas but the need has exponentially grown.

FLETCHER FORUM: If we look at the capacity of the international community to address these long-term crises, do you have thoughts on ways we can go about restructuring aid delivery or the way that funds are collected for these crises in order to strengthen the systems to manage these longer conflicts?

DAHINDEN: What I think is very important, is that even in a situation in conflict, try to help to build up local structures. Of course, you can parachute in food with the World Food Programme or provide medical services, but I think it is important to find modalities there, partners, or people living in the conflict that we can help to build up their own institutions. This is extremely difficult, because very often there is almost nothing. There is often no government, no public service. Usually aid organizations were building up parallel systems but they were often not sustainable, because the local population did not take ownership. The UN for instance would come in, deliver services, and then wouldn’t make the step where the local partners are taking the lead or in the driving seat to move this further.

FLETCHER FORUM: Given your distinguished career in the diplomatic services, what knowledge or advice would share with students at Fletcher or aspiring public servants and young professionals? How can they help address these issues?

DAHINDEN: There are more questions than answers and I think this is the intriguing thing for students. Brainpower is needed. Innovation is needed. We need to work with pilot projects and learn from experience. It is an area of work worthwhile for young people coming out of universities. Young people have an advantage to older ones, they can choose new approaches and are not committed to concepts they have defended for their whole lives.

Another area where we need the brainpower of young people is just in the center of the discussions at the ongoing UN General Assembly: How can we push back poverty in the time beyond the deadline of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. One of the lessons learned is that in places with fragility or conflict, there has been no progress at all, in pushing back poverty. We do not need more of the same but new ideas on how we can move ahead.

The Venezuelan Paradox

The Hidden Costs of Cyber Espionage