Global Geneva Special Report: the crisis of multilateralism and its implications for international Geneva: 1300 words

Saving Brand Geneva

gcsp webinar

A special report for Global Geneva subscribers

By Peter Hulm

Virtually all the players on the international scene here agree that Geneva means something more than a small provincial city in the bottom left-hand corner of Switzerland.

"An ecosystem" is how Béatrice Ferrari, Director of International Affairs of the Canton of Geneva, described it, thinking of the NGOs as well as international governmental bodies that work here.

The biological metaphor was used by others in an online seminar organized by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) on 28 May 2020. Jean-Marc Rickli, Head of Global Risk and Resilience at the GCSP, speaks of Geneva as "a brand and an experience", with 3000 meetings here every year.

What Geneva offers that New York and Brussels can't

He was picking up on something Alexandre Munafò said in the webinar. Director of Strategic Partnerships and Communications at Interpeace, Munafò sees Geneva as "some kind of brand, a way of doing processes. It's about trusting and security , a way of meeting that maybe in New York it is not possible to achieve".

At the same time, even the most optimistic of these expert analysts recognize that Geneva faces a crisis with the deterioration of multilateralism intensified by the COVID-19 panic.

But what kind of crisis? GCSP called in the Geneva watchers to try to identify some of the impacts.

Stephan Davidshofer of GCSP sees the challenge for Geneva's organizations as 1) moving from governmental funding to a hybrid system and 2) digital alongside face-to-face meetings. "It's about how one will influence the other. Not how one will replace the other," he observed. "How to reach the maximum amount of people? It is about making every meeting count," he added.

Davidshofer cited the Global Vaccine Initiative GAVI and the Water Hub as pointing the way forward in creating "coalitions and alliances" meeting both these challenges: multilateralism as process and as practice.

Making international Geneva more inclusive

Ambassador Socorro Flores Liera of Mexico declared: "I am sure international Geneva will find a way to make of this crisis an opportunity." But she agreed that diplomatic practices in Geneva need to evolve, particularly becoming more inclusive. "We need to adapt," she admitted. "I don't think we are yet ready."

Munafò was less forgiving of the international system in Geneva. "Obviously member-state centric processes are no longer effective," he argued. The question might be taboo in Geneva's discreetly diplomatic world, but "what do we do with these structures that are heavily state-focused and are not really fit for purpose any more?"

"Over the last two decades in Geneva we have been witnessing the rise of informal [,,,] structures" such as GCSP, with 52 states on its Foundation Council. Interpeace, too, is "very much a hybrid organization". And "COVID-19 is pushing our boundaries," he added.

'Embrace dematerialization'

Munafò wants Geneva to embrace "dematerialization" in the same way that ArtBasel stands for a special experience for the art world in Miami and Hongkong. The International Red Cross knows that Geneva is a label that in Colombia or the Phillipines represents values people support..

At the same time, Geneva has to broaden its openness to participation by civil society. It's something that neither Brussels nor New York can easily do but Geneva had been "rather innovative" in this respect, he suggested.

Nevertheless, international Geneva needs to work on how to build the infrastructure needed to meet this vision. Cities, he proposed, need to become part of the international Geneva dialogue (see our earlier report on the 2019 cities meeting of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe).

In response to an Internet proposal that Geneva establish 'micro-hubs' elsewhere in the world, the Interpeace director suggested the international community from here could open up a 'Geneva House' in Brussels to make its expertise available to the European Union.

Getting out of the 'Geneva Bubble'

It's a proposal that Béatrice Ferrari showed obvious sympathy for. She saw the present crisis as an opportunity for international Geneva to use such tools as the Zoom webinar technology to bring in more stakeholders. "To get out of the 'Geneva Bubble'," she termed it: to "improve access at a distance for people who cannot come to Geneva".

"This is a way that Geneva can prove its relevance in the future," she observed. But for the moment many non-governmental organizations face financial difficulties and uncertainties about next year's funding.

And the cancellation of many conferences deprives them of importance opportunities for interaction with others that NGOs depend on, as surveys have indicated. She underlined that an ecosystem can be resilient or fragile. It needs maintaining.

Need for high-quality information

Important, too, she insisted, is high-quality information for and about international Geneva, perhaps a tacit admission of previous failings. She highlighted the new Verified project supported by the U.N. (LINK to Verified video).

The current crisis also offers an opportunity open new fields for discussion and regulation, a multi-stakeholder approach to support resilience. "There is a lot of potential," she concluded.

Ambassador Flores pointed out that March was a very difficult month for international Geneva. Apart from the World Health Organization, Geneva bodies found it very difficult to carry out essential work.

After a difficult March, successes in May

Nevertheless, after learning to cope in April, the World Intellectual Property Organization and W.H.O. were able to hold major meetings in May. "They were very challenging but both were successful," she judged.

And in June the human rights and disarmament units would be holding major meetings.

Geneva is needed for human contact

"Is the Geneva multilateral system in danger? I don't think so," she said. "Nothing replaces human to human contact."

Journalist St├ęphane Bussard from Le Temps also stressed the need for "informal" physical contacts with sources, rather than "virtual" discussions in reporting developments.

At the same time, he underlined the importance of personal contacts in building trust but added: "Trust can also be exercised by criticism towards institutions." It's an argument that journalists grock quicker than most administrators: Criticism shows your expectations of the organization as well as indicating where it is falling short.

Redefine multilateralism

"COVID-19 exacerbated the multilateralism crisis," Bussard added. "We do need to reinvent multilateralism, by including civil society and informal actors."

For this reason he welcomed the 27 May announcement of the creation of an independent grant-making WHO Foundation, offering a broader donor base than governments for health programmes. He found this "one of the msot inventive ways" of remaking international Geneva.

These analysts set out a programme for international Geneva to start work on even without the pandemic.

Reinventing itself

Geneva promotes itself, inaccurately, as the humanitarian capital of the world. That can't be so, as long as Médecins sans Frontières (MSF/Doctors without Borders) and Oxfam are going concerns and Switzerland trails behind the Nordic countries in giving money to good international causes.

But Brand Geneva, meaning Lausanne and the rest of Switzerland as well Jet d'Eau city, could reinvent itself as the world hub for development dialogues — on health, medicines, work, economy, rights, security, disarmament, migration, refugees, telecommunications, intellectual property, the environment and sustainable activities — provided the Swiss government and international organizations extend themselves to bring into the debate more representative (and critical) voices.

We have the Water Hub and the WHO Foundation of what can be done to broaden the range of stakeholders (a little bit) involved in the dialogue. It's just a start. Watch this space for developments.


Trump Quits the World Health Organization (LINK)

Half of Geneva's surveyed NGOs have 'substantial' fears for their future (LINK)

Can International Geneva survive the Covid-19 geopolitical fallout? Heidi News interview with Dr Jean-Marc Rickli (LINK)

This Webinar: No 9: 1 hr 29 min.

GCSP COVID-19 Webinar Series (LINK)

Health professionals call for a greener post-pandemic future: The World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform (LINK)

Announcement of the W.H.O foundation (LINK)

Related GLOBAL-GENEVA piece : Pandemics, climate change and U.N. reform : (LINK)

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