From affordable education to food security: how Switzerland supports Ukraine in difficult times

Interview with Andreas Huber, Head of Cooperation, Embassy of Switzerland in Ukraine

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine has received incredible support from its international partners. Dozens of countries have demonstrated unprecedented solidarity in their efforts to help Ukraine in the face of Russia's military aggression. Switzerland is one of them.

Switzerland is a loyal friend and partner of Ukraine. This partnership has been strengthened year by year since Ukraine's independence. Switzerland helps Ukraine to implement structural reforms aimed at improving living standards and human capital development, ensuring the quality of public services and access to education, and stimulating the economic development of decentralised communities. In the most difficult times for Ukraine, Switzerland responds to urgent needs and continues to implement humanitarian projects on the ground. spoke to Andreas Huber, Head of Cooperation at the Embassy of Switzerland in Ukraine, about how Switzerland supports farmers and IDPs, helps to clear Ukrainian land of mines, and provides psychological assistance to the war-affected population.

Over the years of cooperation between Switzerland and Ukraine, our countries have worked on many joint projects. How has the approach to such cooperation changed since the full-scale invasion?

- Prior to the full-scale invasion, Switzerland responded to the needs of the most vulnerable across the country, with a particular focus on several regions with which we had previously established productive cooperation, such as Vinnytsia and Odesa. We also gradually increased our presence in the hard-hit east of Ukraine. Everything changed on 24 February 2022...

Last year, funding from the Swiss government increased tenfold. We received around USD 100 million to respond quickly to the new challenges and difficulties faced by many people in Ukraine. The focus of Swiss support has been and remains on communities and regions with a high proportion of internally displaced persons (IDPs), areas affected by the fighting, and a number of settlements that have been returned to the control of the Government of Ukraine.

Could you tell us more about these interventions?

- In Kyiv region, for example, our programme is focused on supporting people in the liberated communities. In particular, in the village of Moshchun, where 70% of the houses were destroyed or seriously damaged. We compensated over 350 households for the cost of replacing windows and doors.

In Borodianka, we started renovating the building of the Inclusive Resource Centre for children with special educational needs. Together with Astarta, we also supported a large food aid programme in Odesa, Mykolaiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Sumy and Vinnytsia regions in the spring of 2022.

Another example is Kremenchuk, where Russian missiles damaged many energy facilities. Switzerland is rebuilding this critical infrastructure from scratch, but with some innovations, such as more cost-effective pellet heating systems. There is also a separate programme to support small farms, particularly in the Kharkiv region, in the liberated territories, etc. We provide them with the necessary equipment and hygiene products to ensure food safety standards in the dairy industry.

We know that the Swiss government is involved in healthcare projects. Can you tell us more about this?

- Our focus is on the mental health of Ukrainians. We are talking about the psychological rehabilitation of people who survived the occupation or were forced to leave their homes. Professional psychologists work with them, provide consultations and conduct trainings. In fact, this project is not new for us, it was launched in 2018.

In addition to providing direct assistance to people, we also support the implementation of mental health reform by improving the framework conditions, piloting integrated community-based support models, and providing psychosocial services to affected communities.

There is also a physical rehabilitation programme. We were among the first to launch it. Together with other development partners, we help victims and survivors of Russian aggression. For example, by improving the quality of rehabilitation services, providing the necessary rehabilitation equipment and aids, and ensuring the continuous professional development of rehabilitation specialists.

Mr Huber, what about educational projects?

- We have been supporting the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine for many years in implementing decentralised education management and promoting civic education. Drawing on its experience in decentralisation and civic education reform, Switzerland supports the development of an effective and transparent education management system in Ukrainian communities, building trust between local authorities and citizens by improving educational services and increasing civic engagement among young people. We also care about the safety of the educational process. Every school should have a shelter. First and foremost, institutions in the frontline areas.

In our work, we take into account the needs reported by local authorities. This is the main task of decentralisation, which we fully support. Another separate project is demining. This is one of the key needs for Ukraine today and our priority. Together with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we are helping to clear land of explosive remnants of war. And recently, the Swiss government approved a CHF 100 million (USD 110 million) aid package for humanitarian demining of civilian and agricultural areas in Ukraine.

The Swiss Embassy in Ukraine also works with the private sector. What companies do you cooperate with?

- We have long been cooperating with Geberit, Sika and Astarta. We are working with Astarta to deliver food to people affected by the war. The project was funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, and Astarta supplied its own food and products of other Ukrainian producers, which were distributed free of charge to Ukrainian communities, especially those with a large number of IDPs.

In addition, we have been cooperating with Swiss companies for a long time, in particular, with the manufacturer of sanitary ware Geberit. In partnership with them, we promote the development of vocational education in Ukraine. Vocational training is a special educational model in Switzerland. Those who do not want to pursue higher education at a university have the opportunity to complete a three-year training programme in a specific field, such as construction or plumbing.

In Ukraine, we cooperate with the Swiss companies Geberit and Sika. They train young people in the construction industry. Given the need for large-scale reconstruction after the war, the availability of skilled workers is a critical issue for Ukraine. Such professions will be absolutely essential.

This conversation proves once again that the experience of cooperation between the state and private business can and should be successful for both parties. In particular, in times of permanent force majeure. After all, in such circumstances, new and invaluable experience is gained, which in the future may become the key to further development of mutually beneficial partnerships and minimisation of possible risks.