Historian lifts lid on Swiss-African past

Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie gives an award to Jeanne Evalet-Roth, most senior member of the Swiss community, in 1961 Musée d'ethnographie de Genève

As much of Africa celebrates the 50th anniversary of independence, scholars have been looking at Switzerland’s relationship with the continent in colonial times.

This content was published on May 17, 2010 - 13:49

Marc Perrenoud, a historian who specialises in Swiss foreign policy, talks to about Switzerland’s ambivalent relationship with Africa during colonial times, as has been revealed in a new study.

Perrenoud has written an analysis of the subject for the first edition of the International Development Policy Series review, a new publication by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute.

The period of decolonisation was the period when development aid for the poorest countries started to get underway, although, as Perrenoud explains, there was a political background to the humanitarian move. Numerous Swiss citizens took part in the expansion of former African colonies in the 19th century, while others, especially missionaries, supported the emancipation movement. How did these early divergent approaches influence relations between Switzerland and the continent?

Marc Perrenoud: This twin approach went on for decades. On the one hand Swiss people looking for work or business opportunities worked for French or British companies.

On the other there were missionaries and other individuals who condemned slavery and the brutality of colonialism, such as Belgium’s campaign in the Congo; while others collected cultural objects from various countries, a kind of early ethnography.

Missionaries built hospitals, clinics, leper colonies and schools. And some of the younger pupils of Swiss missionaries ended up becoming independent leaders. There is therefore an indirect contribution by Switzerland to the decolonisation process. Do you have any specific examples of the dual approach?

M.P.: From 1828 the Basel Mission tried to develop economic activities that might help end the slave trade. It contributed to the emergence of the cocoa industry in Ghana in the 19th century, which produced the basic raw material the Swiss chocolate industry needed. How did this early win-win strategy influence future Swiss cooperation in Africa?

M.P.: The structures set up in the 19th century created a fertile environment for the launch of Swiss development assistance [the current Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)] in the 1960s. Swiss officials said, ‘If it works in Ghana, it can work elsewhere.’ Swiss Foreign Minister Max Petitpierre (1945-61) advocated an active aid policy for “underdeveloped countries” that was embodied by the creation of the SDC. But wasn’t this strategy primarily aimed at keeping the communist threat at bay?

M.P.: This view is particularly true for Africa at the time of the decolonisation, when western governments were afraid that young African states might fall under the control of the Soviet Union. Development aid was conceived in this respect.

But the approach by Petitpierre and the Swiss government was also a reaction to Switzerland’s isolation; at the time we didn’t want to join either the European Community or the United Nations. In this sense Swiss cooperation was also a way of showing that Switzerland was not isolationist.

It was basically about finding new economic opportunities without overshadowing the former colonial powers, who were Switzerland’s major commercial partners.

As to the concept of neutrality, you shouldn’t forget that this was also conceived as a factor of stability inside Switzerland, where foreign policy discussions within the country could bring together people from very different cultures and backgrounds. During the decolonisation era, were Swiss business and development aid sectors really on the same wavelength?

M.P.: At the start of the 1960s, Swiss industry was hoping to establish itself in these new African markets.

But very quickly business leaders started becoming more sceptical about these young African states. Development aid officials ended up as Switzerland’s main representatives in many of the poorest African countries.

In view of Switzerland’s economic prosperity at the time, this separation between development aid and economic promotion didn’t really cause many major problems.

After successive economic crises, political pressures were exerted and criticisms voiced in order to reduce public aid or to re-direct it.

Frédéric Burnand,, Geneva (Translated from French by Simon Bradley)

Switzerland and Africa

The Swiss first came into contact with Africa in the 17th century.

Mercenaries took part in military operations and some settled in the conquered territories.

Some Swiss businessmen were involved in the slave trade.

But Switzerland never had any colonies, unlike other, larger European states.

Swiss missionaries spread their religious beliefs. From the second half of the 19th century Swiss Protestant and Catholic missions could be found in most African countries.

But trade was 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%.

However, there was trade in cocoa for chocolate, Egyptian cotton for textiles and gold from South Africa for the banks.

Swiss businessmen worked for French, British, German and Belgian firms. 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). In 2000 this workforce had gone up to 40,451 (2.3% of the total Swiss workforce worldwide), not counting the 19,968 people who worked for Swiss enterprises in South Africa (1.2% of the total).

The number of Swiss emigrants to Africa (including those of dual nationality) grew from approximately 10,000 in 1945 to more than 17,000 in the year 2000.

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