As the maxim says, “Whether you think you can, or you can’t, you’re right.”
The Swiss Foundation for Mine Action
The Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) is not the only Swiss organization to be active in mine action, but it is the only one which actually does the work of locating and removing mines in the field. We talked to Hansjörg Eberle, Director General of FSD, about their work.
As Director of the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, can you please give us some background information on FSD and yourself?
The organization was created in 1997 by seven private Swiss Citizens, including me. We all had very different personalities, but shared the same humanitarian motivation and found great personal satisfaction in spending our spare time on our ambition of creating a professional demining group. The organization was first set up as an association and then later, we changed it into a Foundation according to Swiss law. FSD is an international, private, non-political and non-religious charity. We have implemented a large number of mine clearance projects in 15 different countries which are contaminated by mines and unexploded ordinance.
I am the Director General of this foundation and a company economist by training. I started my professional career with the ICRC,where I worked many years, and my career here at FSD almost came about by accident. First, it was a part time endeavour as I founded the organization with friends while I was still an IT consultant in HR and finance. We developed the FSD idea, it grew bigger and bigger until it finally became my main occupation.
FSD is the only Swiss organization which actually removes the mines and works with professional de-miners in the minefields of affected countries. There are several other Swiss organizations which are active in advocacy against the use of mines, but they do not actually remove mines themselves.
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Approximately 150 countries have signed the Ottawa convention which bans the use, production, stockpiling and trade of landmines. Some of the countries which have not signed are the ones which are still producing the mines (such as the USA, China, Russia, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan).
How does your experience of working for such large and then such small organisations compare?
When I was working with the ICRC, I enjoyed the impact of the vast Red Cross operations in the field tremendously. Later, when I was working in the commercial sector for banks and insurance companies, it was again the operations, the capacity to make things happen and change, that brought satisfaction to me. This is exactly the same again today with FSD.
I believe you were also working for an HR company in Geneva for a while?
Yes indeed. I spent over a year coaching senior managers who had lost their jobs, in order to get them back on the job market. Our candidates in “Anticipe” were mostly over 50 years old. Many of those job seekers were looking and applying for a new position for the first time in their lives. Before, they had often managed to take their next career step within the same company or through their network. My main job was to open their eyes; first about themselves, their competencies and preferences; and then also to explain to them the realities of the current job market and try to enable them to find the right fit between both. This was a difficult, but also very rewarding challenge.
What skills does FSD look for?
The job situation in our Foundation fluctuates a lot. It depends on the number and type of international projects we are involved in around the world . What we usually require is experts with sound technical training and professional experience, particularly of course professionals who have work experience in humanitarian or commercial projects. The absolute minimum of experience we expect is 3 years in senior management positions. In addition, we look for people with good negotiation and communication skills, leadership and experience within multi-cultural environments in Geneva or abroad. Very often we require technical skills which we unfortunately cannot find on the Swiss Labour market.
Can you give us examples of the main types of professions required by FSD?
FSD recruits project managers, operation managers, mechanical engineers, paramedics, medical advisors and finance and logistics officers.
Which countries around the world is FSD currently conducting projects in?
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In Africa, it is Burundi, Angola and Sudan. In Asia, we have projects in Laos, Tajikistan and Sri Lanka. In the Middle East, we work in Lebanon. We also have a support office in Manila, the Philippines.
A lot of progress has been made in the last 10 years, but millions of landmines are still in the ground. Precise figures about landmine contamination are not available. They have been used in many war scenarios around the world, but no precise maps about number and location have been created.
How many people are employed by FSD?
Currently, we have 500 staff working in the field with 30 of them being International staff recruited in Geneva. The remaining 470 are locally recruited national staff who typically do the actual demining work in the field. Our specialized international staff have managerial and training roles. They recruit, train and supervise their national colleagues in order to ensure that they can successfully remove mines while avoiding accidents.
What is FSD’s recruitment policy?
We post our job vacancies on our web site. We shortlist 3-5 candidates and invite them to two interviews. In principle, we have no age limit, although most of our candidates are 35-50 years old and we do not hire many young people.
Do you have an apprenticeship program in your foundation?
No, we cannot offer opportunities for people who are looking for a work placement or training. The demining job can only be learned through being in the military and through many years of practice working with mines and ammunition. For support functions such as logistics, administration and communication, we have worked with the Lausanne based SYNI-Foundation for many years. However, they have difficulty finding candidates with the right profiles for us, mainly because our jobs are located abroad and very often in difficult countries with difficult living conditions.
What are the achievements of the FSD?
The FSD’s mission is to locate and destroy landmines and unexploded ordnance to prevent accidents, to diminish the social, economic and environmental impact of the landmines and other unexploded ordnance, and thereby create better conditions for the development of countries affected by war.
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Here are just two examples of the job FSD has done in two countries, Tajikistan and Sri Lanka. Our staff removed about 1 million explosives last year, varying from small unexploded ordnance to deliberately sown landmines. In our Tajikistan demining operations, FSD has cleared and surveyed a total of 2 million square meters since 2003. In Sri Lanka, FSD has manually cleared 85,604 square meters, and mechanically examined 268,820 square meters. In addition, FSD has removed 1165 explosive remnants of war, such as cluster bombs and other sub-munitions.
Has there been any cooperation between the FSD and the Lady Diana Organization?
Lady Diana was very active and drew a lot of attention to the problem of demining. We tried to contact her to arrange a meeting with our foundation but unfortunately were not able to do this before she died. She was a great loss to the general cause of landmine clearance as she was outspoken and courageous with her field visits to Angola.
On the other hand, Queen Noor of Jordan provided a lot of support to our project in Tajikistan two years ago, and she generated a lot of goodwill for it.
The mine action world is suffering from the absence of strong leadership and high profile people who really advocate for this cause, such as Lady Diana.
Since last year though, we have had the endorsement of the former Miss Switzerland, Christa Rigozzi. Christa has visited our project in Tajikistan and since that trip, she has regularly supported FSD in the Swiss media.
What is your assessment of the impact of the current economic situation on the FSD?
The international financial crisis has so far not had any direct impact on our activities. However, we are afraid that budgets for mine action will come under further pressure, and that there will be even less money available to organisations such as ours.
Despite these looming difficulties, I would not expect our sector to be as hard hit by the crises as banking and finance, which have started laying off staff on an unprecedented scale.