Faced with tough competition, will Geneva remain the capital of multilateralism?

Geneva has established itself as a hub of multilateralism, a neutral ground where more than 700 international organizations, diplomatic missions and NGOs can converge and discuss world issues. But the competition is increasingly fierce, with cities around the world looking to take the lead in key areas such as technology, finance, health and climate. Meanwhile, the rising cost of living in Geneva and a cultural life that leaves something to be desired for many young professionals are jeopardizing his chances of staying at the top.

The hub boom

In recent years, a race to be at the center of global health has begun, accelerated by Covid-19. Public-private partnerships like GAVI, the vaccine alliance in Geneva, are proliferating in other cities at the forefront of innovation. In 2017, Norway partnered with India and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), with the aim of accelerating vaccine development. Four years later, in the midst of a pandemic, Germany and the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a global health hub to predict the next viruses that could trigger a pandemic.

The choice of Berlin, rather than the WHO headquarters in Geneva, was justified by the hub’s director, Chikwe Ihekweazu, in an interview with Foreign Policy, as it offered “the proximity to Geneva, which we need, while keeping a little distance. At the time, the WHO was caught in the crossfire between the United States and China. The health body continued other overseas collaborations this month, launching a new pandemic prevention fund with the World Bank in Washington DC.

In the area of ​​digital governance, Switzerland is clear. It aims to see Geneva as a world capital and has launched numerous initiatives to this end, such as the Geneva Science Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) and Swiss Digital Initiative foundations. Yet a recent report from Foraus points out that these efforts don’t go far enough, especially as key initiatives move elsewhere, as UNESCO’s Artificial Intelligence Research Center has done. , set up in 2020 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, or the UN envoy for technologies established in New York.

The think tank also warns of skyrocketing cyberattacks, such as the one that targeted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in December 2021, which risk scaring organizations away. A justified concern since the ICRC has chosen Luxembourg for its new delegation for cyberspace. Concerned, the CyberPeace Institute and other organizations sent a proposal to the Swiss federal government in May for the creation of a secure data storage space for NGOs.

Climate change and sustainability are also whetting appetites. Geneva, on the other hand, has had as many successes as failures. While she managed to convince to host the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, her applications were not selected for the International Sustainability Standards Board, won in 2021 by Frankfurt, and the Green Climate Fund, granted to South Korea. According to an observer familiar with the matter, Switzerland did not manage the calls for tenders well, failing to involve the right actors.

But new opportunities are on the horizon and Switzerland has its eyes on two of them, which would allow it to further consolidate itself as a world capital against pollution. “Geneva concentrates conventions and institutions relevant to the chemicals cluster and we believe that these synergies would benefit a strong international regime. This is why we will probably make an offer for Geneva to host the scientific and political group on chemical substances as well as the treaty on plastic pollution”, argues the Swiss ambassador for the environment, Franz Perrez. But success is not guaranteed. Franz Perrez points out that there is “increasing competition between countries” and expects more states to apply for the hugely popular plastics deal. Switzerland is also studying the possibility of hosting the COP31 on climate in 2026.

The UN decolonization movement also raises questions about the relevance of a greater presence of international organizations in the countries of the South, where the crises strike with the greatest force. So far, the only UN agencies with headquarters in a middle-income country are the UN Environment Program and UN-Habitat, both based in Nairobi. But they face difficulties, notably due to poor connectivity and insufficient funding from the Kenyan government, according to a source close to the organization. Some organizations based in Geneva, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAIDS, have opted to decentralize some of their activities in order to strengthen their links with the field while reducing their costs.

Preserving the attractiveness of Geneva

Among so many emerging areas, Switzerland will have to determine its priorities and where to place its resources. International Geneva’s activities have steadily increased over the past decade, with the number of conferences held in a year rising from 2,536 in 2011 to 3,230 in 2021. International Geneva is doing so well that it is fully reserved until 2024, according to a source. But it was forced to refuse to hold some negotiations due to the lack of available places, another source said, stressing the need for more capacity to cope with an expanding multilateral system.

Attracting young talent will also be key to keeping Geneva relevant. To do this, the importance of a strong cultural offer should not be underestimated. “Around the Quartier des Nations, there are few places where young professionals and interns from International Geneva can meet after work, relax and interact,” explains Maria Isabelle Wieser, co-president of Agir, an initiative aimed at to revive some of that life after work.

Diana Rizzolio, coordinator of UNEP’s Geneva Environment Network, observes that Geneva must also adapt to a changing world of multilateralism: “Covid has completely changed people’s habits.” And to add that if most of the official talks have returned to face-to-face mode, a large part of the informal meetings remain hybrid. “There is still a lot to do to close the IT gap to ensure good participation from all stakeholders,” she stresses.

Nicolas Walder, member of the Swiss National Council, agrees with these remarks. In 2020, the Greens MP submitted a proposal to parliament to commission a report on the impact of Covid on international Geneva. For Nicolas Walder, keeping the big names in Geneva will depend on how Switzerland takes care of its microcosm of small NGOs. “The challenge is to maintain the organic way of functioning of international Geneva,” he explains, suggesting that it could, for example, offer space and technological support to organizations that are learning to adapt to the upheavals of the multilateral system. . “Bern’s role is to anticipate,” he concludes.

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Faced with tough competition, will Geneva remain the capital of multilateralism?

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