What Switzerland Can Teach Us About Development

Switzerland fragile statesInternational efforts to help developing countries start with a mental model of how government should be structured. It is based on the most common European model of state building—a model initially developed by France but shared by most countries today. European history did, however, have another model, one that is not well remembered but that may be much more useful for fragile states—the Swiss model.

17th century France established what is considered the first modern state by centralizing authority, building up a central bureaucracy, expanding the government’s armed forces, and taking direct control of territory from local elites. It transformed what was a complex mosaic of small fiefdoms for which the king was only a titular head into a unified entity that the king reigned over. Louis IV, who played a dominant role in the process, put himself at the center of government. He called himself the Sun King (the center of the universe), declared that ‘I am the state,’ and built the majestic Palace of Versailles to rule from.

The increased military power that the “French system” system produced fed the ambitions of France’s rulers, forcing other countries to respond. In the end, most European states ended up much more centralized. Nation-states backed by strong central governments became the norm, and the French obsession with uniformity, equality, and centralization has been so impressed on the modern consciousness that it seems hard to imagine politics without it.

Other forms of governance disappeared. This was most notable in Central Europe, where the Holy Roman Empire had existed for centuries. Divided into hundreds of individual entities governed by kings, dukes, counts, bishops, abbots and other rulers (and sometimes directly by the Emperor), it had very limited central authority. At no time could the Emperor simply issue decrees and govern autonomously. Eventually, the most powerful individual political entity (Prussia) emerged as more important than the empire, and it slowly withered away, unable to survive the escalating need for centralized power.

The countries least affected by these developments were able to depend on some form of geographical protection: the British had the Channel; the Swiss had its mountains. But the British were building an empire and militarily engaged on the continent, and also trended towards greater central control, albeit with a more liberal bent. Only Switzerland continues to retain facets of an older, alternative form of government—a form that once played a far more important role across Europe.

The country has a number of unique elements rarely found in other modern states:

  • Power is divided equally among three levels of government—federal, cantonal, and communal.
  • The lowest level of government—the commune—spends as much money as the cantonal and federal levels, giving local politics a direction and impact not found in other systems (which often praise devolution without practicing it).
  • Boundaries (both between cantons and with neighboring countries) are jagged and irregular, reflecting the complex histories that produced them. In some cases, bits of territory are not contiguous with the areas they belong too (i.e., they are enclaves or exclaves). Splitting territory in this way reduces friction between groups of people (as pockets of people are not forced to join groups they do not wish to).
  • Direct democracy plays an important role in decision-making, with many legal changes requiring approval by referendum that are agreed to by both a majority of citizens and a majority of cantons (citizens can also initiate referendum to change a law). This ensures that reforms have wide acceptance and that no group can dominate another. Switzerland is not a representative democracy as understood elsewhere.
  • The cantonal system preserves local identities and allows for great experimentation in politics. Communes confer citizenship, a power that reflects the rooted, ‘bottom-up’ quality of Swiss life.
  • The country has four national languages, allowing each of its four major groups equal status within the country.
  • The executive branch (the Bundesrat) consists of a seven-member executive council that serves as the Swiss collective head of state. Each Federal Councillor heads one of the seven federal executive departments. The presidency, which has limited powers, is rotated among the seven people, each serving one-year terms. Despite the fact that the executive council always consists of persons from different political parties, its decisions must be negotiated and agreed to by consensus, as no one person is in charge.

Combining aspects of medieval governance with practices of popular sovereignty from below, Switzerland represents a model of how government might have looked if the exigencies of war did not intervene in Europe. As Jonathan Steinberg writes in Why Switerland?:

Whereas the British and American systems produce winners, the Swiss prefer to protect the losers. . . . This cellular political system allows ethnic and other particularisms to flourish side by side. . . .The Swiss system aims to integrate diverse interests and to lock them into the negotiation of compromises. Government becomes a system of administration, adjustment, aggregation, and consultation.

Now consider the problems faced by fragile states: divided populations; fractured politics; weak, opaque, and corrupt government; multiple disconnected legal systems and forms of public authority; weak systems of accountability; weak national identities.

The “Swiss System” would not be easy to reproduce elsewhere, but at least it would have greater flexibility to work with the grain of local societies, instead of trying to override it as centralized governments do by default. It would allow diversity and a multiplicity of identities to flourish, and empower local communities—which are often the most cohesive parts of countries—to make best use of what legal and governance system worked in their areas. It would institutionalize power sharing and reduce social exclusion—a major problem in fragile states. It would attempt to leverage the one form of accountability that has been shown to work in most fragile states—face-to-face accountability—and funnel money to where it is more likely to be used to benefit local populations. And it would sharply limit the ability of overbearing rulers to hijack government to advance their own interest—something all too common in such settings. In fact, a system that forced different interest and ethnic groups to work together in a system of consensus might be the only way to create an inclusive model of development in places such as Syria, Kenya, Somalia, and Libya.

The Swiss System goes way beyond federalism and other systems designed to devolve power in diverse countries as it roots public authority much more in local societies, and forces higher levels of government to work with the representatives of disparate identity groups.

Is anyone in Switzerland listening?

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Seth Kaplan

About Seth Kaplan

Seth Kaplan is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He teaches, writes, and consults on issues related to fragile states, governance, and development. He is the author of Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (Praeger Security International, 2008) and Betrayed: Politics, Power, and Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). A Wharton MBA and Palmer scholar, Seth has worked for several large multinationals and founded four companies. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.