Walking through the old town of Geneva, I was once again struck by the plaque showing the meeting place of Henry Dunant, Gustave Moynier, Henri Dufour, Louis Appia and Theodore Maunoir. Near the Cathedral, on the wall of a simple building, the plaque marks the apartment where the idea for the Red Cross began.
Geneva has often been called the capital of multilateralism. With about 30,000 international civil servants and organizations like UNOG, WIPO, ILO, UNHCR, UNHCHR, WTO, ITU, WHO. IPU, WMO, UNCTAD, WEF and the ICRC, there is reason for the Genevois and Swiss to be proud of a small city being at the center of so much international activity. (Even if you are not familiar with all the above initials, please bear with me for my argument.)
All of this international activity puts pressure on the small population of Geneva in numerous ways. Difficulties with reasonable housing, education and transportation are frequently mentioned. Tensions are inevitable between the local population and internationals. In a much larger context, many New Yorkers have called for the United Nations headquarters to be floated away in the East River, partially because diplomats often park illegally, having immunity from paying parking tickets. Various studies are being undertaken to show the benefits to Geneva and Switzerland from international Geneva. The benefits outweigh the costs although exact figures will be difficult to quantify.
How does this relate to Dunant and the beginning of the Red Cross? During a recent press conference, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter announced that the Federal government was allotting 1 billion francs over a ten year period for international Geneva. Much of that money will go for construction and renovation of buildings to house international organizations. The international area of Geneva, as distinct from the town center, appears and will appear to be an enormous building site. The renovation of the Palais des Nations alone will cost over 600 million francs, although Switzerland will not pay the entire amount.
All of this is necessary to keep international Geneva thriving. Attractive, up-to-date work places are a must; other cities are and will try to attract organizations away from Geneva with seductive offers for relocation. There is real competition. Modern working facilities are part of what makes a city competitive. The high living costs in Switzerland, the strong franc and improved telecommunications have made Geneva less competitive.
Dunant and his colleagues had an idea. They had no need for an up-to-date working area. Nor did they need to be surrounded by other organizations. The question I am posing, therefore, is the relationship between congenial meeting areas and work environments with the germination of ideas. There is no question that the renovation of the Palais is necessary, just like the renovation of the ILO or the construction of the Maison de la Paix. All these are positive steps forward.
The real question is the relationship between material comfort and ideas. We are not talking here about scientific laboratories. Dunant’s and his colleagues’ success was based on the idea of protecting civilians and helping the wounded and prisoners during conflict. The International Labor Organization was based on the idea of improving working conditions for employees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was based on the idea…The World Economic Forum was based on an idea by Klaus Schwab…And so on.
Buildings are necessary, but not sufficient to keep Geneva as the capital of multilateralism. The competition between Geneva and other cities is about ideas, not just material comforts, as the 150th anniversary of the ICRC should remind us.