Swiss humanitarian aid unit: rapid response experts for crisis zones

Members of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, such as these working on water purification in eastern Ukraine in 2015, can be sent anywhere anytime. SKH/Michael Fichter

Whether it is water specialists, construction experts or mediators that are needed, Switzerland has some 700 experts who can be deployed in humanitarian crises or catastrophes all over the world. takes a closer look at this very special unit of Switzerland’s humanitarian aid. 

This content was published on May 30, 2018 - 11:00

Swiss experts provide emergency medical aid in natural disasters, for example, and make sure that relief items get to where they are supposed to be. They set up waste water projects and help construct earthquake-proof buildings. The missions of the Swiss humanitarian aid unitExternal link (SHA) members are extremely varied. 

The SHA pool consists of around 700 experts who can be deployed at any time to wherever help is needed, whether it is in crises, catastrophes or wars. These civilians actually constitute a standing army. They need to be flexible and can be deployed quickly, which means they have to be ready to leave at any time. 

Many of the unit’s members are self-employed. They mainly have technical expertise, especially in the fields of logistics, water and sanitation as well as construction, which are all areas of vital importance. In case of emergencies, SHA members have to be deployed instantly, so there is no time to train them first.

The experts are split into eleven special units with the following expertise:


The duration of the different missions varies. In cases of natural disasters or a sudden outbreak of a conflict, deployments can last several weeks or months. For long-term projects, missions can last between six months and two years, during which time the Swiss experts work closely with staff in the affected country. 

There are two kinds of missions. SHA members are either deployed to work directly for Swiss-led projects or they go on so-called ‘secondments’, which means Switzerland ‘lends’ an expert to a UN agency for the duration of a project. In this way, Swiss expertise can also be passed on to international teams. 

Living in uncertainty

Those wanting to join the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit can apply. The application process is tough, selecting only those experts who are willing to be deployed more than once and are available to leave at a moment’s notice.

They have to be Swiss residents with several years’ experience in their special fields as well as international cooperation, speak several languages and be between 25 and 55 years old. 

There are no permanent contracts. Humanitarian workers are deployed when they are needed in the field. Uncertainty is their daily companion. SHA members get short-term contracts for their missions and are paid a salary for their work. Those who opt for this lifestyle of SHA missions have to be able to live with financial as well as other uncertainties.

Four pillars of Swiss development cooperation

The SHA is the operational arm of Swiss Humanitarian Aid of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which is part of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). This means that the work of the SHA is an integral part of Swiss foreign policy.

The unit is also part of the so-called Swiss Rescue Chain, which is a consortium of civil, state and military organisations that are deployed after earthquakes. It consists of location specialists, doctors and rescue dogs.

Some of the partner organisations are the Swiss Seismological Service (SED) and the Swiss Red Cross, as well as Switzerland’s national airline Swiss and Zurich airport.

Impartiality enshrined in Swiss law

The 1976 federal law on international development cooperation and humanitarian aid legitimises the work of the SHA. Article 7 stipulates that humanitarian aid should aim at “saving lives and alleviating suffering”. This can be achieved by implementing preventive measures as well as providing emergency assistance.

The principles of the SHA have not changed. The assistance it provides is neutral and impartial, it works pragmatically with various local partners and tries to implement preventive measures regardless of country, ethnic group or religion of the people in need.

Awareness after Biafra

This was not always the case though. While foreign aid was mainly privately funded in the 19th century, emergency aid in Europe was largely ideological and confessional. In the course of the reconstruction efforts after the Second World War, humanitarian aid became an integral part of Swiss foreign policy.

The Swiss became particularly aware of the importance of their country’s development cooperation and humanitarian aid during the Nigerian civil war and the Biafra famine in the late 1960s. The increased use of television played a big part, as the suffering was directly transferred into Swiss living rooms. Switzerland’s government set up the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit in 1973. Under its current name, the SHA has been operational since 2001.

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