Amid tough competition, will Geneva remain the capital of multilateralism?

Place des Nations and its iconic sculpture Broken Chair. (Credit: Keystone/Interfoto/Hanna Wagner)

As global challenges become more complex, global cities are springing up all over. Some are already stepping on the heels of the international city of Geneva

Geneva has established its place as a hub for multilateralism – a neutral ground where over 700 international organisations, diplomatic missions, and NGOs can converge and discuss how to deal with the plights of the world. But competition is increasingly fierce as cities across the world seek to lead in key issues from tech, finance, health and climate. Meanwhile, Geneva’s rise in cost of living and cultural life that leaves many young professionals unimpressed threaten to hurt its chances to stay on top.

Global cities bloom

A race to be at the centre of global health has ensued in recent years, only to be boosted by Covid-19. Public-private partnerships similar to the Geneva-based GAVI, the vaccine alliance are proliferating in other top-innovation cities. In 2017, Norway joined forces with India and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), with the aim to accelerate vaccine development. Four years later, mid-pandemic, Germany and the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a global health hub to foresee the next pandemic-causing viruses.

The choice of Berlin, rather than the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, was justified by the hub’s director Chikwe Ihekweazu in an interview with Foreign Policy for offering “proximity to Geneva, which we need, but still a bit of distance”. At the time, WHO was caught up in the political crossfire between the US and China. The health body pursued further collaborations abroad this month after launching a new fund on pandemic prevention with the World Bank in Washington DC.

In the field of digital governance, Switzerland has made it clear that it wants Geneva to be seen as the world capital and has launched a number of initiatives such as the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) and the Swiss Digital Initiative. But a recent report by Foraus, pointing out that these efforts don’t go far enough, cites UNESCO’s AI research centre set up in 2020 in Ljubljana, Slovenia or the decision to appoint a UN technology envoy in New York.

Foraus also warns how the rise in cyberattacks, like the one that targeted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in December 2021, could scare organisations away – a justified concern shown by the ICRC having chosen Luxembourg for its new delegation for cyberspace. The Cyberpeace Institute and other concerned organisations addressed a proposal to the Swiss federal government in May for a safe data storage space for NGOs to be created.

Climate change and sustainability has also whetted the appetites of many, with Geneva winning some battles but losing others, such as the bid for the International Sustainability Standards Board, which went to Frankfurt, and the Green Climate Fund, which ended up in South Korea. Switzerland did not handle the biddings well and did not involve the right actors, said a source familiar with the issue.

But new opportunities are on the horizon and Switzerland has eyes on two, which would further consolidate it as the world’s pollution capital. “Geneva has a concentration of relevant conventions and institutions for the chemicals cluster and we think that these synergies would benefit a strong international regime. Therefore, we will probably make an offer for Geneva to host the science-policy panel on chemicals and the treaty on plastic pollution,” said Swiss ambassador for the environment Franz Perrez. But success is not assured. Perrez stresses that there is “increasing competition between countries” and would expect others to bid for the highly popular plastics treaty. Switzerland is also weighing up a bid to host the climate Cop31 in 2026.

The movement to decolonise the UN has also sparked a debate over whether more international organisations should have a bigger presence in the global south, where crises are hitting the hardest. So far, the only UN agencies with a mandate to have their headquarters in a middle-income country are the UN Environment Programme and UN-Habitat, both based in Nairobi. But they face difficulties, including poor communications and insufficient funding from the Kenyan government, said a source close to the organisation. Some Geneva-based bodies such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAIDS have opted for decentralising some of their activities to strengthen their links with the field while cutting costs.

Keeping Geneva attractive

Amid so many emerging fields, Switzerland will have to determine its priorities and where to put resources. International Geneva’s activities have been steadily increasing over the past decade with the number of conferences held in a year growing from 2,536 in 2011 to 3,230 in 2021. Geneva’s doing so well that it is fully booked until 2024, according to a source. But it has had to decline negotiations due to a lack of available venues, another source said, stressing the need for more capacity to cope with a growing multilateral system.

Attracting young talent will also be key to keeping Geneva relevant, and for that, having a strong cultural offer shouldn’t be underestimated. “Around the Quartier des Nations you have few places where the young professionals and interns of international Geneva can gather afterwork, unwind and interact,” said Maria Isabelle Wieser, co-president of Agir, an initiative aiming to revive some of that afterwork life.

Diana Rizzolio, coordinator of UNEP’s Geneva Environment Network, points out that Geneva also has to adapt to a changing world of multilateralism: “Covid has completely changed people’s habits.” She notes that while a lot of official talks are back to in-person mode, a big chunk of meetings have remained hybrid. “There’s still a lot to do to bridge the IT gap to ensure good participation from all actors.”

Nicolas Walder, member of the Swiss National Council, echoes her assessment. In 2020, the Green Party MP submitted a proposal to the parliament to commission a report on the impact of Covid on International Geneva. For Walder, keeping the big names in Geneva will depend on how well Switzerland takes care of its microcosm of smaller NGOs. “The challenge is keeping the organic way of working of International Geneva,” he said, suggesting that it could for example offer space and technological support to organisations learning to navigate the multilateral world. “Bern’s role is to anticipate,” he said.

This article was published as part of a special 2nd anniversary print edition of Geneva Solutions, published in collaboration with Le Temps.