Matthias Drilling - Expert in poverty and homelessness

We consult experts well versed in social issues in Switzerland to ensure that we use your donations to finance the best projects with the greatest impact.

In March 2020 we launched our appeal for people in Switzerland who are suffering the most from the impact of the coronavirus. Among the groups we wanted to support were the homeless and people living in considerable poverty. In the process of deciding which projects to fund, we called on the expertise of Matthias Drilling to help us identify the best projects with the greatest impact from among the hundreds of proposals we received.

Matthias has worked for over 20 years as Head of the Institute for Social Planning, Organisational Change and Urban Development at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland, focusing on poverty both in Switzerland and around the world. He explains to his students the social causes of poverty, showing that it is not enough to search for the reasons in personal factors alone.

You can find out more about Matthias’ understanding of poverty in Switzerland today and the partnership with Swiss Solidarity in the interview.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

I am Head of the Institute for Social Planning, Organisational Change and Urban Development at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland. I have a degree in Geography, and for over 20 years I have studied the issue of poverty in an urban context in Switzerland and in many other countries. I try to give my students on the Social Work degree course an understanding of the factors that give rise to poverty and to make it clear to them these lie in society: to look for the causes of poverty in a person’s individual circumstances never provides the full picture.


Tell us about the partnership with Swiss Solidarity.

Several years ago, we started at the university to look at the issue of homelessness. The reason we did so was the ongoing public discussion: people from Eastern Europe were being housed in emergency dormitories, people with mental illness were found queuing at soup kitchens. Swiss Solidarity had read our report and wanted to know if and how they could become involved in this issue. In the middle of this discussion came COVID-19, and suddenly thousands of people in Switzerland were dependent on food donations and free food. Since then I have been supporting Swiss Solidarity’s COVID-19 programme as one of two national advisors.


Why is it important to analyse project proposals before funding is granted?

Despite the state of emergency and the rapid and direct activities in response to it, donations from the public and corporate donations are distributed via Swiss Solidarity. And there is a limited amount of money available, so priorities must be defined, which is not at all easy in view of the great need throughout Switzerland. The fact that Swiss Solidarity involves two external consultants in the decision-making process shows that it wants to be transparent. Together we have drawn up a list of criteria and questions that the projects have to respond to. On the basis of this information we carry out an assessment, and Swiss Solidarity’s communication team communicates this to the donors.


What criteria do you use to assess and evaluate projects run by Swiss organizations applying for funding to help those most affected by COVID-19 in Switzerland?

There have been two calls for projects: one for people who suddenly found themselves without enough to eat and, a little later, one for people experiencing a loss of income and who have no access to state support. So the most important criterion has been helping to prevent hunger and existential poverty of individuals, families, children and the elderly in Switzerland. Then there were criteria on the number and profile of beneficiaries and whether there were other ways of providing support. And we checked whether the organization could realistically carry out the project. The application form was very short, so we also reached groups that had formed at short notice to provide help to those in need.


You are very familiar with the organizations and projects already supported by Swiss Solidarity. Can you explain to us what difficulties they have had to contend with since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and whether things have got better since then?

Many of the difficulties already existed before the pandemic. Organizations that distribute food to people in need rely mainly on volunteers to do the actual distribution, especially older people, and it was this group in particular that was asked to stay at home to protect themselves. For years now, counselling centres for people who are not sufficiently supported by our welfare state have been suffering from a lack of personnel and financial resources. In the pandemic, the number of people in need doubled within weeks. People could no longer pay the rent, and the organizations supporting them soon ran out of money. I can only see potential for improvement if we seriously address the fundamental problem of our social policy.


Which people in Switzerland have needed financial support and which still need it?

Initially there were people all over Switzerland who didn’t have enough to eat. The Schweizer Tafel, which distributes around 16 tonnes of food a day, had difficulty obtaining goods because of lockdown. Tischlein Deck Dich, which distributes cheap food, was short of around 3,000 volunteers and over 130 distribution points had to close. All this deprived more than half a million people of food overnight. Then the consequences became apparent for domestic workers without social security, people without valid residence papers, but also all those who have very little money apart from their basic benefits and pensions. Another quarter of a million people in Switzerland still face the possibility of losing their home.


As an expert in this field, what do you think are the long- and medium-term implications for individuals and families who have suffered a significant loss of income?

It is still too early to say. We remember the scenes of people queuing for a bag of food worth 20 francs in Geneva, Basel and Zurich, but there were also pictures of people in rural areas. These people will perhaps feel worthless for a long time, and we must do everything possible to ensure that their children do not also internalize this feeling. People on the verge of financial impoverishment have long lived with the knowledge that they could lose important things like housing and food security at any time. Some people actually fled Switzerland at the beginning of the pandemic without knowing whether they would be better off in the place they went to.


How do you assess the way in which volunteers and civil society responded to this crisis?

At the beginning of the pandemic, help was offered in many different ways; restaurants that had to close cooked for the homeless; young people started neighbourhood help and much more. Swiss Solidarity Day did a fantastic job of providing much-needed help in a serious crisis. But the welfare state cannot pass the burden of coping with the crisis on to civil society. Volunteering and solidarity are not the final safety net at national level and they do not compensate for the welfare state. Many volunteers are no longer able to help because they are exhausted, have to go back to work, or want to take on other tasks.


Can you already draw lessons about helping those in need for the future?

It has become clear how quickly people in rich Switzerland can fall below the poverty line. Hunger and suffering are not restricted to urban areas. Volunteering is very much driven by groups that are themselves vulnerable. Social organizations do not have the same strategic importance for the government as the economy. And there is still great potential for social organizations to cooperate: among themselves and also with local councils, canton and state. From a social perspective, Switzerland has not passed the COVID-19 stress test. We must work on this. Ideas have been around for a long time; we must now put them into practice.