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Geneva NGOs face funding uncertainties amid Covid and government cuts

Under financial pressure because of the pandemic, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose Geneva headquarters are pictured here on 16 January 2012, had to cut 95 posts in September 2020. (Credits: KEYSTONE/Martin Ruetschi).

More than one year after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Geneva NGOs have proved largely resilient and managed to adapt to the new environment. However fears of a delayed impact on their budgets, as seen after the global financial crisis, remain. 

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been navigating turbulent waters in recent months. Covid-19 struck first, forcing them to scale back their activity and adopt new ways of working. Since then, cuts announced by the United Kingdom, one of the world’s largest aid donors, have added to broader unease over funding uncertainties ahead.

Read also: How UK aid cuts are impacting NGOs in Geneva

NGOs in Geneva are largely advocacy offices taking advantage of the presence of international organisations to defend the causes they support. They rely on "non-earmarked" funding that is not linked to specific projects – to run their Geneva offices. This means that while cuts by donors such as the UK will likely have a significant impact on their operations elsewhere, these do not affect their Geneva-based budgets.

Yet, many are dealing with other funding-related issues – notably the after-effects of the pandemic. According to a recent survey by the canton’s International Geneva Welcome Center (CAGI in French), 31 per cent of the 108 NGOs surveyed state they have been hit severely by Covid-19, and 17 per cent even cut jobs. 

The impact on revenues was better than many surveyed last year had feared, with only 37 per cent of NGOs reporting a decrease compared with the 57 per cent who envisioned budget restrictions in the previous survey. 

But whilst this paints a more positive picture, the sector’s heavy reliance on government funding (a main source of funding for 40 per cent of NGOs) adds to uncertainty with some 42 per cent of respondents still envisioning the worst to come in 2022. 

Julien Beauvallet, head of the NGO Service at CAGI, explains: “We feel a great deal of concern, not for this year, but for the next, given the slowness of decision making and budget validation systems among states. The fear is rather that in 2022 budgetary arbitrations will be cut down.”

Broader Covid uncertainties  

Beyond budgetary restraints, the pandemic has created other challenges for civil society organisations, Beauvallet says: “For a year, the classical core activities of international Geneva – its conferences and human aspects – could not take place. It continued to function, and there is the fear that it will continue to work differently – that is, the presence in Geneva will no longer be as important as in the past, because there will perhaps be fewer face-to-face events, and therefore less added value.”

Many high-level events from International Geneva have been moved online. For instance, the ongoing 47th regular session of the Human Rights Council, which will last until 13 July, is taking place virtually. 

During the Council’s last session, the move away from in-person events raised worries that civil society organisations might be getting sidelined.

Read also: NGOs worry Covid restrictions at Human Rights Council will leave a mark.

Alessandra Canova, Director of Right Livelihood’s Geneva Office, a foundation whose annual award is considered an alternative Nobel Prize, explains: “When it comes to Right Livelihood’s work in Geneva, we have definitely been affected by the lack of in-person events. Right Livelihood Laureates have lost important opportunities to interact with diplomats, UN officials and civil society face to face. Thankfully, we were able to continue our advocacy work digitally. However, we do hope to be able to bring Laureates to Geneva again soon.”

Lack of public support

Ignacio Packer, executive director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), a network of over 100 NGOs, including 25 in Geneva, also highlights the lack of local support in the midst of the pandemic: “We have a major advocacy effort with the Swiss Confederation, the Geneva City and Geneva canton, with two claims. One is to make International Geneva more attractive to NGOs, with services which are adapted not only to Western NGOs but also to attract NGOs that come from Asia, for instance. The other is to make it more inclusive.”

Measures to make the International Geneva environment more “attractive” would include subsidies for office spaces and lower rent prices. According to Packer, only two out of ICVA’s 25 Geneva-based members receive subsidies for their office space, and the rent for ICVA’s own offices was hiked up in the midst of the pandemic. “These are the kind of things that us, at NGOs, we’re getting a bit tired of, that the situation is not sufficiently attractive,” he says. 

While acknowledging the absence of relief measures specifically targeting International Geneva during the pandemic, Beauvallet stresses the “flexibility” offered to NGOs in their use of public funding.

As for the future, he explains: “This is an inflexion point, a major crisis which requires re-thinking the public supporting funds allocated to International Geneva. So there is a lot of reflection – but concretely, nothing has been set up yet, it will take time to implement public policies, if any. But there are many discussions, either at the Swiss Confederation or the Geneva Canton, to adapt the support to a hybrid International Geneva.”

Looming funding crisis

But another major danger lies ahead – on which both Packer and Beauvallet agree: the risk that the large deficits in many public budgets, induced by governmental relief packages, eventually lead to cuts in aid budgets. 

There are precedents – though the impact generally differs by a few years, as was the case after the global financial crisis, explains Beauvallet. According to a study from the think-thank Overseas Development Institute (ODI), aid budgets were indeed cut among members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC, an OECD-supported group regrouping some of the largest aid providers in the world) after the subprime crisis, but only after 2010. 

Given Geneva NGOs’ reliance on public funding – labelled as their main source of revenue by 40 per cent of the respondents to the CAGI survey – there are reasons to worry. Yet, the ODI study also shows that, contrary to expectations, aid budgets actually rose from 2008 to 2012 among DAC members, leaving hope for a greener tomorrow. 

In the meantime, civil society organisations are having to re-think their approach to funding, focusing on three main points, according to Packer: working with non-traditional donor countries like Qatar or China, involving local actors to do more of the on-the-ground-work, and ultimately decreasing the need for humanitarian action. 

On that last point however, Packer is far from hopeful: “What’s worrying is that the needs have just skyrocketed – will they be around vaccination, access to populations, famine in Tigray and so on. And the funding – at best, has increased a little bit overall, but far from the proportion which is needed.”

“We’re heading for a very, very difficult and concerning period. There are people really trying as much as they can, within governments, within the private industry. It’s not that NGOs and the UN are the good guys and the others are not the good guys, it’s a common effort. But to change systems, it does take time, and we don’t have that much time.”

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