Margrit Tappolet worked at Swisscontact from 1977 to 2009 and was managing the SEC for six years. Jane Achermann (J.A.), SEC project manager since June 2015, conducted an interview with Margrit Tappolet (M.T.) and learned some interesting facts.
J.A.: Margrit, you immersed yourself in the history of the SEC on the occasion of our 40th anniversary, did research in the Archives of Contemporary History of the ETH and created this informative timeline. Thank you very much!
Which findings moved you the most or surprised you the most?
M.T.: Although I still experienced this time at Swisscontact, in retrospect I was amazed at how it was possible to cope with the work with the still simple technical aids. At the time, the ordinary mail and fax were used for communication, international telephone calls were too expensive. Amateur photography has also made impressive progress in the meantime.
J.A.: How did you personally experience the founding of the SEC back then?
M.T.: I was active in our projects in Lesotho at the time. We were informed in writing about the SEC and asked to support us in our search for interested clients. In the beginning, many assignments took place within Swisscontact or SDC projects, for example in vocational training projects.
J.A.: What was the general mood like in international development cooperation at the time? And what was the attitude towards the SEC?
M.T.: It was a time of change from development aid to development cooperation. In 1979, for example, the term “development aid” still appeared in the name of Swisscontact. Of course, many found the SEC to be a very good initiative with a lot of potential. But there were also skeptics who feared that the senior experts lacked working experience in developing countries.
J.A.: What were your biggest challenges in the management of the SEC back when you were in charge?
M.T.: In my time, the SEC was realigned to support SME. Swisscontact was primarily active at the so-called macro and meso level with SME promotion. The SEC assignments complemented this with support for the actual small and medium-sized enterprises, the so-called micro level. We have introduced structured reporting, evaluations and other new working tools. For some volunteers, this was still rather unusual at the time.
What are your biggest challenges today, Jane?
J.A.: Certainly the budget limits. We could achieve so much more if we had more money at our disposal. Therefore the challenge for me is to convince more donors, including from the private sector, of SEC’s activities in order to increase our project volume and achieve even more impact.
I honestly also find digitization challenging. The tools and possibilities are changing so quickly. As soon as you have finished implementing an IT project and become accustomed to the processes, it is almost out of date again. We have so many possibilities for technical aids, but are we really more efficient in the end?
You’ve been retired yourself since a few years. What do you think are the biggest differences between the retired people you engaged as experts for SEC and today’s generation of retired people?
M.T.: I think that we are more demanding today as retired people and want to continue to be active in a variety of ways. It was thought at the time that retired people should mainly focus on enjoying their retirement. Taking care of the garden and perhaps pursuing one other hobby, corresponded to the cliché of that time and had to suffice. I also once met someone who even criticised that retired people should no longer work – that it was exploitation of the elderly what SEC was doing. At that time, conducting an SEC assignment was still something quite special.
J.A.: What is your most impressive memory during your time as head of the SEC? Is there an assignment/event that remains in special memory?
M.T.: Actually, there are many stories. I’ve always been very impressed by the senior experts with their creativity and huge commitment. Often it didn’t take much to be successful: One SEC expert for example once recommended to “his” baker in Nepal, to have the croissants ready at 7 am instead of 10 am. This led to the success of all croissants being sold, without any leftovers, as was the case before.
I was impressed by an expert who, without complaining, drove in an unheated railway wagon to her place of work in Romania during one night at minus 20° Celsius!
I’m sure you also have many impressive stories, Jane?
J.A.: I am simply impressed again and again by the enormous knowledge and decades of experience that our experts bring along, as well as their enthusiasm for their field of expertise. That really is a treasure, indeed our capital, which is available to us. During conversations with experts, I am constantly learning new things about areas that I have hardly ever dealt with before.
But I have also been impressed by the many encounters with our clients and their stories. It is hard to imagine under what circumstances some entrepreneurs managed to be successful in business. It takes great flexibility, endurance and courage to withstand and succeed in such conditions. I think we can learn a lot from them. Or at least remind us not to lose these skills and down-to-earthness.
What do you wish for the future of the SEC?
M.T.: Of course, I’m very happy that retired people can still make a contribution to poverty reduction through the SEC. It is also important that the SEC continually adapts to the changing demands.
And what are your wishes, Jane?
J.A.: My wishes are relatively simple – but not completely immodest: First and foremost, I want the SEC to grow and realise its full potential. I always look up to our sister organizations in Germany and Holland, which basically offer the same services as we do, but are much larger because they have the financial resources at their disposal. The SEC proves again and again how cost-effectively much impact can be produced. The recognition of this impact is already a big step. Of course, I also hope that the political environment worldwide will continue to allow us to invest in international development cooperation and that current trends towards nationalisation in many countries will not harden further.
Furthermore, I naturally hope that all our experts will continue to bring home added value for themselves and their environment in Switzerland from SEC assignments and that they will always return home healthy and inspired.
Thank you very much, Margrit, for your support and this interesting insight into the history of the SEC.