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22.04.2008 - Article
Sustainable contributions to the reform process


Switzerland’s cooperation offices in Sofia and Bucharest will close their doors at the end of May 2008. The SDC has helped to bring about sustainable reforms in the health, environmental and governance sectors. Brochures, films and a dossier on the Internet provide insight into experience gained in fifteen years of cooperation.

Grass-roots democracy in the form of community fora was a hallmark of Swiss projects in Bulgaria. A recreational park in Gabrovo, a tourism office in Sevlievo, an Internet course centre in Chitalishte and a city beautification project in Yablanitsa are four of the 384 projects carried out since 2000, based on proposals from a total of 107 community fora. Almost 40% of all Bulgarian communities were reached. As important as the results was the participatory forum process, which mobilised citizens representing very different interest groups. “Several mayors told us that they now have a group of committed citizens who are politically involved in their communities – a positive development,” says Heinz Kaufmann, coordinator of Switzerland’s cooperation office in Sofia.

What will remain after the fora are closed down? Some communities seem prepared to continue using the forum format for budgetary decisions and large-scale community projects, while others will bide their time. Several of the approximately 150 trained moderators and coordinators have received subsequent mandates. Knowledge of the forum methodology is firmly anchored. Kaufmann points to the fact that eight specialised organisations have come into existence with Swiss assistance at both local and national level. The experience gained has been processed in the form of training handbooks and a documentary film about the forum process that the SDC also introduced successfully for use in Macedonia.

A change in values takes time
Switzerland has made a name in Romania through it contributions to reform in the health sector, particularly in neonatology and emergency medicine. Dozens of hospitals have received modern equipment, and over 3000 medical personnel have received further training. The effect is measureable: the infant mortality rate and the child mortality rate in the project region have both dropped below the national average. The project has raised the quality of medical services and made services more accessible to people of little means. Some hospitals today serve twice as many patients as they did in the mid 1990s.

Will the reforms initiated by Switzerland continue? “My hopes rest on professionals in the university hospitals; they are the driving force of reform,” concludes Anton Hagen, the departing coordinator of the office in Bucharest. Despite considerable progress in reform, institutional change is a slow process – as both Hagen and Kaufmann agree. The reason lies not in the level of education, which is considered good in both Romania and Bulgaria, but in the many and often politically motivated changes in personnel at the ministerial level which threaten the continuity of reform.

First projects likely from mid 2009
With its EU enlargement contribution to Bulgaria and Romania, Switzerland is making a further effort to help reduce economic and social inequalities in Europe, and is continuing its previous assistance to both countries at a comparable level. Bulgaria is to receive approximately 30% (CHF 76 million) and Romania approximately 70% (CHF 181 million) of the total amount of CHF 257 million.

Switzerland reached agreement with the EU on the general principles of this contribution on 2 April. Following approval by the Federal Council, which is still pending, the Swiss parliament must approve the corresponding credit; this will likely occur in autumn of 2008. Country-specific priorities and procedures will then be negotiated with Romania and Bulgaria in bilateral agreements. Initial project proposals are expected from mid 2009.

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