“We’ve grown more realistic”

The NADEL Center for Development and Cooperation at ETH Zurich is celebrating its 50th anniversary. We sat down with NADEL co-directors Isabel Günther and Fritz Brugger to learn more about the effectiveness of development cooperation as well as the centre’s new missions and plans for the future.
ETH professor Isabel Günther and Dr Fritz Brugger jointly run NADEL. (Photograph: Daniel Winkler / ETH Zurich)

Ms Günther, Mr Brugger, the NADEL Center for Development and Cooperation is celebrating its 50th anniversary. How has the general understanding of development aid changed since the centre was founded?

Isabel Günther: One thing that has not changed since 50 years: international aid flows can only make a difference if invested in programmes that are designed together with all relevant stakeholders. That’s why the term ‘development cooperation’ is more apt than development aid. However, we’ve grown more realistic over the years regarding what we can achievewith international grants: they do not increase economic growth, but can improve quality of life for the general population.  Luckily today we have much more data, which gives us better insight into which development policies have the potential to be successful. Here it doesn’t matter whether these policies are financed with foreign aid or by the countries’ own tax revenues.

Fritz Brugger: Our understanding has also changed in the sense that other policy areas like Switzerland’s climate, trade or tax policies also have at least an equally important role to play in achieving a more just world.  From a financial perspective, development aid has become less important – not because less is being spent, but because many countries have experienced strong economic development over the past 30 years.

What do you consider to be the greatest challenges currently facing development aid?

Günther: Whether COVID-19 will lead to an increase or a decrease in international cooperation still remains to be seen. Everybody has realized that international cooperation is essential to address global challenges but we have also seen that many countries start to forget about the global population in a crisis. One ongoing challenge in development cooperation is the extent to which national interests influence international development cooperation.

Brugger: On top of that we now have the 21st century climate crisis, which is hitting poorer countries the hardest even though they contributed the least to it. As industralised nations, we have an obligation to finance mitigation measures, but in doing so we must not neglect the fight against current poverty. This is the biggest political challenge at the moment.

Development cooperation also isn’t being spared the impact of technological transformation and digitalisation. What changes will have to be made to keep up with these trends?

Brugger: Digitalisation offers great opportunities, for example to improve healthcare services, to open up access to financial services or to give more effective agricultural advice. We’re only at the beginning of being able to really use this potential. But there are also risks that come along with digitalisation that we definitely have to keep in mind – the risk of deepening existing dependencies, of increasing inequality, of excluding people who have less access to technology. Studies show that women are disproportionately impacted, even if they live in urban areas.

The effectiveness of development aid is once again a hot topic following dramatic recent events in Afghanistan.

Günther: It’s a tragedy that the freedom of so many people, particularly women, is going to be restricted again. Because ultimately that’s what development is all about: people’s freedom to lead self-determined lives. With that said, however, it does seem that development cooperation has contributed to an improved quality of life for the Afghan people. Child mortality has dropped by half over the past twenty years. The number of children attending school has gone up. Not all of this social progress is going to be undone. And right now, international humanitarian aid has a decisive role to play in keeping the healthcare system up and running and in preventing famine. Current events in Afghanistan do make it clear, though, that state and institution building  byoutside powers often does not work. This isn’t exactly a new insight, but some observers are clearly having trouble coming to grips with it.

How has NADEL’s work changed over the past 50 years?

Brugger: When NADEL was founded – at the time it was called INDEL – we thought of international cooperation and fighting poverty as primarily transferring technical skills across countries. For that reason, the study programme – today the MAS ETH in Development and Cooperation – was highly technical in nature. But the focus steadily expanded over time: sustainable use of natural resources and climate change became important topics, then global inequality, and an increasing focus on political and social issues. In the 1990s, NADEL also introduced the CAS ETH Development and Cooperation, a programme for professionals working in the field to continuously update their knowledge and skills in this rapidly changing environment.

Günther: Today we also aim to bring sustainable global development challenges and solutions closer to more people in Switzerland. We are also working closely together with ETH for Development (ETH4D), an internal network at the university, to internationalise the curriculum.

What have been the milestones, from your perspective?

Günther: The first milestone was 50 years ago, when NADEL established a degree programme that was interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary in nature. NADEL was truly ahead of its time in terms of recognising that the big global challenges can only be tackled across borders. All courses at NADEL are taught from a variety of perspectives and involve decision-makers from the government and civil society. A last milestone almost 50 years later: expanding our course offerings for people outside of Switzerland and outside of traditional development organizations. Achieving the 2030 UN Agenda requires everyone to work together: governments, NGOs, the private sector and universities. That’s why we have also started to offer the Swiss public the opportunity to learn more about international development cooperation, which prompted us to launch the “1.90 per day” podcast, to name one example.

NADEL is closely linked to the Development Economics Group. What’s the research focus?

Günther: We conduct empirical research on technologies and policies that fight poverty in Africa. To this end we work closely with researchers from different countries like Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Benin and South Africa. Two give two examples of ongoing research projects: currently we are analyzing how the COVID-19 pandemic in Ghana is affecting children’s access to routine vaccinations like the polio vaccine. Having secure access to routine vaccinations is essential, even though of course obtaining access to the COVID vaccine is the biggest challenge for African countries in 2021. This challenge is more of a political question, however. Another research project is looking at the use of mercury for extracting gold in Burkina Faso and how this can be reduced to prevent poisenings. Approximately 70 percent of the gold mined worldwide is refined in Switzerland.

What’s your personal relationship with NADEL?

Brugger: It’s very exciting to be working at the intersection between research and the real world, particularly in an era when international cooperation is undergoing a transformation and bringing in new actors. I’ve also benefitted from working in this field myself for so long and for so many different players.

Günther: It’s unbelievably fulfilling to be able to shape a curriculum that graduates can then go on to use to promote sustainability and justice around the world. We are also in contact with many of our alumni and learn a lot from them.

If NADEL didn’t exist, would it make sense to found it at ETH today?

Günther: Yes. Effective international cooperation is just as important today as it was 50 years ago, which the coronavirus pandemic has once again made very evident. And even though in 2021 the number of people living in poverty has reduced dramatically compared to 50 years ago, given our global increase in prosperity it can hardly be justified that there are still nearly one billion people living on less than $1.90 per day.

Brugger: Over the past 50 years it’s even become more important for practitioners to have a close link to research. In a rapidly changing world, it’s important to have independent research to create a sound foundation which can be used by decision-makers engaged in sustainable development.

What relationship does NADEL have with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)?

Brugger: The ETH MAS Development and Cooperation has been a joint project between ETH and the SDC from the very beginning. While ETH is responsible for the two semesters of study, the SDC finances on-the-ground projects for our students. We frequently invite guest lecturers from the SDC to teach in our courses, and they are often former students of NADEL. We also work with the SDC when it comes to applying scientific findings in development cooperation work.

How would you like to see NADEL develop in the future?

Günther: For the next 50-year period, I’d like to see international cooperation for global justice to become part of the DNA of ETH Zurich. I’d also like to see a world where no one is suffering from economic inequality. 

Brugger: I couldn’t agree more.

50 years of NADEL

The NADEL Center for Development and Cooperation was founded at ETH Zurich in 1970. After a one-​year delay due to the corona crisis, NADEL is now celebrating its 50th anniversary with a series of public events and lectures on “rethinking cooperation for an inclusive world”. You can find more information on the event series on the NADEL anniversary website

NADEL – Center for Development and Cooperation

More informations

Prof. Dr. Isabel Günther has been Professor of Development Economics and the Academic Director of NADEL since 2014.

Dr. Fritz Brugger is the executive director of NADEL and in charge of the institute’s continuing education programmes.