Fotos: Desiree Palmen


When nobody else helps

Despite its high stan­dards, the Swiss social secu­rity system still has gaps. When child­ren suffer from severe illness or people drift into poverty, when people with disa­bi­li­ties need aid or refu­gees want to inte­grate them­sel­ves into society, chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­ti­ons provide considera­ble support.

Although poverty knows no seasons, the colder months still create addi­tio­nal pres­sure. ‘Today, the winter months are still tremen­dously chal­len­ging for people affec­ted by poverty, which is often invi­si­ble,’ says Monika Stampfli, Mana­ging Direc­tor of aid agency Winter­hilfe Schweiz. The agency helps people affec­ted by poverty, paying urgent bills and provi­ding bene­fits in kind. Warm clot­hing, heating and a festive setting for the end-of-year holi­days all require money that those affec­ted do not have. In addi­tion, social life incre­asingly takes place indoors, further isola­ting people in preca­rious social circum­s­tances. ‘Finan­cial poverty often results in social isola­tion,’ says Stampfli, adding: ‘Poverty requi­res a lot of energy.’

In the shadow of wealth

Accor­ding to the 2021 Global Wealth Data Report, Switzerland’s wealth amounts to USD 4,689 billion. As such, it ranks 15th in the world’s wealt­hiest count­ries – a fact that makes poverty all the more chal­len­ging. ‘Very few people realise that there is poverty in Switz­er­land,’ says Stampfli, ‘as it is often invi­si­ble.’ Many people are afraid and asha­med, and ther­e­fore wait too long before getting help, she explains. This means that they run the risk of falling into debt before asking for help. The aid agency ther­e­fore belie­ves it is important to encou­rage people to cont­act it early on. Howe­ver, this is parti­cu­larly diffi­cult in areas in which social control is high; for exam­ple, in more rural areas, says Stampfli. ‘Luckily, our branch mana­gers have excel­lent networks and take the initia­tive in rural areas, approa­ching those who are in great need.’ But invi­si­ble poverty exists within our cities and urban areas as well. The relief orga­ni­sa­tion Sozi­al­werk Pfar­rer Sieber has become well-estab­lished in the banking and insu­rance city of Zurich, and its employees have noti­ced that those affec­ted by poverty often hesi­tate to ask for help.

‘This makes it quite diffi­cult to offer support, as reaching those in need can be chal­len­ging,’ says Walter von Arburg, Head of Commu­ni­ca­tion at the orga­ni­sa­tion. Howe­ver, his assess­ment of this is nuan­ced. ‘People feel asha­med because they have lost control over their lives; this in turn means that they try to main­tain their auto­nomy for as long as possi­ble rather than have to depend on outside help. Which is a posi­tive aspect,’ he says. With its low-thres­hold offer, the social welfare orga­ni­sa­tion not only tries to secure the survi­val of those in need, it also supports a gradual impro­ve­ment in their living condi­ti­ons. In the best case, they can be reinte­gra­ted into the labour market and society, which ideally enables them to lead a self-reli­ant life.

Walter von Arburg is also aware of the addi­tio­nal chal­lenges winter brings, with cold and damp condi­ti­ons meaning a rise in demand for emer­gency shel­ters and warm clot­hing. But he feels it is important not to equate need with mate­rial things, as he sees isola­tion as a central problem area: ‘We work on buil­ding rela­ti­onships, which helps people believe in them­sel­ves and others again. This is a crucial aspect that enables people in need to start making plans for the future and to realise them,’ he says. Stampfli focu­ses on one parti­cu­larly vulnerable group: she belie­ves it is parti­cu­larly fatal for child­ren to grow up in social isola­tion, which is why the aid agency aims to prevent this with a special funding programme. ‘It allows disad­van­ta­ged child­ren to take part in leisure acti­vi­ties, such as sports and music lessons, along with their friends,’ she says.

Desi­ree Palmen, Rotter­dam, Public Space Camou­flage, 2000/2001.

Money, lack of know­ledge, organisation

Child­ren are parti­cu­larly expo­sed; if they become ill, family life can change abruptly. ‘Having a child diagno­sed with cancer will always put a strain on “normal” fami­lies, inclu­ding from a finan­cial perspec­tive,’ says Paul Castle, Vice Presi­dent of Regio Basi­li­en­sis, a foun­da­tion for child­ren with cancer.

And thin­king of Switz­er­land as a wealthy coun­try can be decep­tive in this case. ‘This coun­try has a great health­care system,’ he says. ‘Many people think health insu­rance compa­nies cover the costs for all medi­cal and nursing services when someone has been diagno­sed with cancer, but that is by no means true.’ Health insu­rance compa­nies focus on imme­diate cancer treat­ments, some of which are extre­mely expen­sive. Howe­ver, these are by no means the only chal­lenges facing a family with a child who has cancer. ‘We’re not even talking about unusual, exotic thera­pies here, but more about buying a mattress that meets the needs of a child who is in extreme pain, for exam­ple,’ he says. 

This is where orga­ni­sa­ti­ons such as the Basel-based foun­da­tion help out. Paul Castle knows from first-hand expe­ri­ence just what support they can provide and what fami­lies need in this situa­tion. When his son was diagno­sed with cancer 16 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of infor­ma­tion on child leuk­aemia available on the inter­net. Looking back, he says: ‘For me, the key topics – and I think they were typi­cal – were my lack of know­ledge and how to orga­nise our time, money and my son’s scho­la­s­tic future.’ At school, the family was able to count on the support of the class teacher and some of their son’s friends, who were parti­cu­larly helpful when he retur­ned. He had been unable to go to school for six months, which is why Castle empha­si­ses how important follow-up care is for teen­agers. And of course the finan­cial and orga­ni­sa­tio­nal situa­tion put a strain on the family. His son’s hospi­tal did not have a foun­da­tion; howe­ver, a house for parents offe­red afforda­ble accom­mo­da­tion nearby. None­thel­ess, Castle had to pay off his debt over a long period of time. When it came to orga­ni­s­ing his time, his boss and the entire company proved extre­mely accom­mo­da­ting, some­thing that for many parents is not a matter of course. And during the pande­mic in parti­cu­lar, fami­lies have faced addi­tio­nal chal­lenges. ‘When some sectors intro­du­ced short-time work or had to make employees redun­dant in 2020, the situa­tion became even more preca­rious for some parents,’ says Castle.

Not here, but here none­thel­ess. Her works always show the futile attempt to main­tain the illu­sion. Rotter­dam, Public Space Camou­flage, 2000/2001 by Desi­ree Palmen.

Pande­mic increa­ses social pressure

Stampfli has noti­ced that the pande­mic has made poverty visi­ble. At the same time, it has driven people into poverty or has incre­asingly exacer­ba­ted fragile situa­tions. She talks about a single mother who took on clea­ning jobs to earn a living in addi­tion to recei­ving main­ten­ance. When these jobs disap­peared, the mother turned to the aid agency, as she had run out of food. The aid agency was able to help her by provi­ding food vouch­ers and cove­ring her rent. ‘This case is a prime exam­ple of someone who was able to support them­sel­ves without the aid of others before the pande­mic. In many cases, inclu­ding this one, our aid agency has provi­ded emer­gency support to tide people over until they receive govern­ment support.’ Walter von Arburg also obser­ved how the fear of losing their finan­cial foun­da­tion led to a sense of inse­cu­rity in many indi­vi­du­als, which was parti­cu­larly high in people in unre­gu­la­ted employ­ment. ‘And for people who were alre­ady margi­na­li­sed, such as the home­l­ess, addicts and soci­ally isola­ted people, the pande­mic has prima­rily been such a chall­enge because shel­ters have had to deve­lop and imple­ment hygiene concepts,’ he says. ‘In reality, that means less space for at least the same number of visi­tors.’ This has resul­ted in an addi­tio­nal increase in social pres­sure: shel­ters and soup kitchens are essen­tial to these groups, as they provide social cont­act. To meet the demand, Sozi­al­werk Pfar­rer Sieber restruc­tu­red its offer of spaces at the Pfuus­bus emer­gency shel­ter in accordance with pande­mic-rela­ted rest­ric­tions within days.

More flexi­ble than expected

The pande­mic also meant that the Züri­werk foun­da­tion had to adapt its housing and employ­ment offers. The foun­da­tion supports persons with disa­bi­li­ties in diffe­rent sphe­res of life, helping them to find housing, employ­ment and voca­tio­nal trai­ning, with a range of offers at various loca­ti­ons in the city of Zurich, the surroun­ding urban area and the Zürcher Ober­land. Clients’ auto­nomy was rest­ric­ted in order to main­tain their health, meaning they could no longer do their own shop­ping or use public trans­port. To compen­sate, Züri­werk orga­nised more exer­cise opti­ons in accom­pa­nied groups. The teams formed effec­tive clus­ters that largely preven­ted diffe­rent inter­nal and exter­nal persons from mixing.

‘But we also have clients with multi­ple, severe disa­bi­li­ties,’ says Alex­an­dra Elser, Head of Fund­rai­sing at Züri­werk. ‘They rely on profes­sio­nal help when it comes to wearing masks.’ Proxi­mity and distancing were major topics, parti­cu­larly at meal­times. None­thel­ess, Elser notes: ‘Our clients were more flexi­ble than we expec­ted.’ As a result, the foun­da­tion was able to complete orders and meet custo­mer requi­re­ments. Howe­ver, it faced the chall­enge of ensu­ring that all chan­ges were affordable.

Here, Züri­werk was able to count on tremen­dous soli­da­rity, with donors very often proving more gene­rous during the pande­mic. Conver­sely, there was a decline in income as certain orders dried up; howe­ver, support from the canton remained stable.

Close to the economy

Resi­dents of the Plan­kis foun­da­tion expe­ri­en­ced simi­larly drastic chan­ges to their ever­y­day lives. Plan­kis offers people with disa­bi­li­ties a place to work and live in Chur.

For months during the first lock­down, resi­dents were no longer able to visit their fami­lies at weekends. ‘And their fami­lies weren’t allo­wed to visit them, either,’ says Mana­ging Direc­tor Beda Gujan. ‘It was a terri­ble situa­tion. At one fell blow, our clients felt set back by deca­des in terms of parti­ci­pa­tion, auto­nomy and their posi­tion in society during lock­down.’ Howe­ver, their clients were able to imple­ment the new rules almost auto­ma­ti­cally, as they are used to follo­wing instruc­tions in their daily lives.

‘I was truly impres­sed by how exem­plary and pati­ent people with disa­bi­li­ties beha­ved,’ he says. He also obser­ved a socie­tal discrepancy: although the regu­la­ti­ons became mired in contro­versy, people with disa­bi­li­ties had no diffi­culty adap­ting flexi­bly to the new situa­tion. And the foun­da­tion also expe­ri­en­ced a posi­tive econo­mic effect during the pande­mic, with a signi­fi­cant increase in custo­mers for its self-produ­ced, local products. Plan­kis owed this increase to its deli­be­rate proxi­mity to the economy, which allo­wed it to gene­rate about 60% of its budget through the sale of products and services, inclu­ding earnings from housing. This proxi­mity has also made it easier to inte­grate clients into the primary labour market: ‘We usually manage this in six to nine cases a year.’ The foun­da­tion aims to break down the diffe­ren­ces between protec­ted and non-protec­ted work­places as far as possi­ble, with employees with disa­bi­li­ties trea­ted exactly the same as other employees, where­ver possi­ble. If the situa­tion allows, Plan­kis speci­fi­cally employs people with disa­bi­li­ties in shops and restau­rants. ‘Many of our custo­mers and visi­tors have to look twice to be able to tell who is a client and who is a carer,’ says Gujan. Accep­tance in society is accor­din­gly high. Gujan belie­ves that the best way to commu­ni­cate the foundation’s work is to ensure its clients are publicly visi­ble, allo­wing them to present them­sel­ves as an estab­lished part of society. ‘Once a person has expe­ri­en­ced what people with disa­bi­li­ties can do, they are able to reco­g­nise the value of protec­ted work­places,’ he says. Elser also has no doubt: ‘If our foun­da­tion is to conti­nue to have econo­mic success, we have to be in line with the market.’ She has noti­ced that more and more compa­nies are assum­ing their corpo­rate social respon­si­bi­lity (CSR) on diffe­rent levels, which has had an impact on orders. ‘We have been able to conti­nuously expand our offer,’ she says. ‘Young entre­pre­neurs at start-ups in parti­cu­lar make a deli­be­rate choice to work with us.’ Some of the jobs that Züri­werk typi­cally takes on include crea­ting and support­ing web stores and provi­ding logi­sti­cal services. In gene­ral, custo­mers show a great deal of good­will, be it in the field of inte­gra­ted work­places or indus­trial orders. And there is a sense of open­ness, with a mental ‘credit bonus’, as it were – without the expec­ta­tion that profes­sio­na­lism will be lower. An expe­ri­ence Gujan shares: “We are aware that our custo­mers see the social compo­nent as an argu­ment in our favour. At the same time, custo­mers will not make a repeat purchase if the quality is not right.’

Photo: Desi­ree Palmen


Mean­while, foun­da­ti­ons colla­bo­rate with indus­try and commerce in a number of diffe­rent ways. Züri­werk, for exam­ple, bene­fits from a campaign with Swiss depart­ment store Jelmoli. Instead of holding a sale on Black Friday, the store will take part in Giving Tues­day, dona­ting CHF 5 to the Züri­werk foun­da­tion for every purchase of CHF 50 or more between 26 and 30 Novem­ber 2021. Züri­werk also offers compa­nies a very special expe­ri­ence: the oppor­tu­nity to change sides. This encou­ra­ges employees to leave their comfort zone and spend a day with people with cogni­tive impairm­ents. The aim of the campaign is to over­come fears, provide infor­ma­tion, and expe­ri­ence inclu­sion. ‘A lot of compa­nies feel nervous about this day because they don’t know how to approach people with disa­bi­li­ties. But after they have had this expe­ri­ence, they keep coming back,’ says Elser. They see the joy and pride with which people with cogni­tive impairm­ents do their work. ‘I too am fasci­na­ted by the tremen­dous satis­fac­tion they feel,’ she says. The value of work to a person’s self-confi­dence and inte­gra­tion into society is the focus of Power­co­ders. The chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­tion aims to help refu­gees and migrants enter the labour market. The meaning of work to this group of people is tremendous.

‘They really want to work,’ says Chris­tina Gräni, respon­si­ble for commu­ni­ca­ti­ons at Power­co­ders. They are moti­va­ted by their search for appre­cia­tion, a sense of belon­ging and the desire to demons­trate their poten­tial. And they do not want to depend on social help, some­thing that has not chan­ged during the pande­mic, says Gräni. Howe­ver, work has become more chal­len­ging: with people working from home, social inte­gra­tion within teams has become more diffi­cult. But addi­tio­nal chal­lenges are not a threat to the Power­co­ders concept, as it solves two problems simultaneously.

‘Many refu­gees in Switz­er­land have great poten­tial,’ says Gräni. “And the IT sector has a shortage of skil­led workers.’ One advan­tage is that as a univer­sal language, compu­ter science contri­bu­tes to over­co­ming cultu­ral differences.

A sure-fire success

The Power­co­ders programme has four phases. The asso­cia­tion looks for the right candi­da­tes when recrui­ting. Many of the programme’s parti­ci­pants – which, thanks to Power­co­ders’ speci­fic efforts in this area, comprise more than 25% women – have a degree in compu­ter scien­ces or a natu­ral scien­ces subject, obtai­ned in their coun­try of origin. ‘Our parti­ci­pants had often comple­ted adequate trai­ning and lived good lives before they were forced to flee their count­ries,’ says Gräni. Howe­ver, compu­ter or natu­ral scien­ces trai­ning is not a prere­qui­site for accep­tance: fast lear­ners are also welcome. Tests help to deter­mine lear­ning curves and compre­hen­sion. Once parti­ci­pants have been accepted on to the programme, they take part in a boot camp that conveys IT skills. Here, they are also taught social and commu­ni­ca­tive skills, which are just as important on Switzerland’s labour market. After­wards, parti­ci­pants have to prove them­sel­ves on the labour market over the course of a 12-month intern­ship. Finally, Power­co­ders sits down with the company offe­ring the intern­ship to find a long-term solu­tion, whether in the form of a perma­nent posi­tion or an appren­ti­ce­ship in IT, depen­ding on the participant’s age. ‘The biggest chall­enge is finding the right candi­da­tes,’ says Gräni. To meet this chall­enge, Power­co­ders works with NGOs and refu­gee orga­ni­sa­ti­ons throug­hout Switz­er­land. On the company side, the programme is a success, as there is defi­nite demand. ‘After five years, the programme has become a sure-fire success. Word-of-mouth recom­men­da­ti­ons are a great help,’ she says. But it takes nume­rous volun­teers to run the programme, some of whom act as job coaches. ‘They have to really know Switzerland’s labour market,’ says Gräni. Howe­ver, Power­co­ders has alre­ady estab­lished an exten­sive alumni network. Imple­men­ting the project requi­red exten­sive deve­lo­p­ment work; for exam­ple, Power­co­ders nego­tia­ted an agree­ment with each canton, which bears part of the costs.

A presence that simul­ta­neously dissol­ves into its surroun­dings. Desi­ree Palmen, Inte­rior Camou­flage, Maas­tricht, 1999.


Stampfli views the fact that autho­ri­ties and social services work well as one of Switzerland’s major strengths. ‘And yet there are still gaps, which is where we come in.’ And she empha­si­ses: ‘We do not provide any services that another body, autho­rity or insu­rance is obli­ged to provide.’ Walter von Arburg agrees: ‘As an aid agency that provi­des emer­gency support, Sozi­al­werk Pfar­rer Sieber takes over when no one else can help – not the govern­ment or another non-profit organisation.’ 

The aim is always to help those affec­ted as sustain­ably as possi­ble, adds Stampfli: ‘Again and again, seve­ral aid agen­cies are invol­ved in provi­ding support for one indi­vi­dual case.’ Regio Basi­li­en­sis, the foun­da­tion for child­ren with cancer, focu­ses on targe­ted colla­bo­ra­tion in its work. ‘Ever­y­thing we do is in some way asso­cia­ted with Univer­sity Children’s Hospi­tal Basel (UKBB) and the onco­logy ward there. Excel­lent coope­ra­tion is key – combi­ned with the neces­sary distance and decis­ion-making inde­pen­dence for our Board of Trus­tees.’ This is an essen­tial factor that allows the foun­da­tion to support parents. ‘We regu­larly advise the hospi­tal to ensure that no fami­lies are preven­ted from asking for our help due to lack of know­ledge or because they feel asha­med,’ says Castle. The fact that the foun­da­tion has a very speci­fic purpose is also helpful when it comes to fund­rai­sing. ‘It means that conver­sa­ti­ons with poten­tial donors do not veer off course. Instead, they stay on a topic that touches a lot of people,’ he says. ‘People who donate know exactly where their money is going.’

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