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Aptly chosen

by Hans Dembowski
Front page: High technology in the classroom – in Côte d‘Ivoire in 1965 and in Kenya in 2009

Front page: High technology in the classroom – in Côte d‘Ivoire in 1965 and in Kenya in 2009

The ultimate goal of development aid is to become redundant. In this sense, the 50th anniversary of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) is not just a reason to celebrate, but certainly one to reconsider its role too.

The notion of development is very young. It is rooted in the idea of progress, itself a quite recent phenomenon. Only in the 17th century did people in ­Europe begin to see knowledge as something that was constantly improving. Much later, people began to expect living standards to improve too. The idea that rich nations should support poorer ones on their path to prosperity only took hold after World War II.

In the west, the initial impetus came from the USA. President Harry Truman showed interest in development, emphasising various security ramifications. From then until the collapse of the Soviet block after 1989, aid policies were shaped by the Cold War. Its logic was particularly felt in divided Germany. East Germany was keen on diplomatic relations with other countries, and West Germany was equally keen on marginalising its socialist sibling. Accordingly, West German aid served to reward countries for not recognising East Germany.

The fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in a new era. Donors and their agencies began to discuss governance. Earlier, such attempts had fallen on deaf ears. Proudly independent former colonies did not accept interference in their domestic affairs. During the Cold War, moreover, western donor governments had been at least as eager to contain socialist rivals as to help developing countries, so they had not shied from cooperating with corrupt and brutal autocrats. “He may be a scoundrel, but he is our scoundrel,” was a conventional and convenient way of thinking. Donors show more concern for governance today, though they are still prone to make compromises in the case of strategically important countries – just consider Pakistan, for instance.

The buzzword of the past two decades was globalisation. It has several connotations, from liberalising world trade to growing international interdependencies and the need for inter-governmental cooperation on public goods. To many people in western countries the term itself sounds frightening; they fear for labour and environmental standards. To many people in the developing world, however, globalisation has meant new opportunities.

Indeed, middle classes are growing fast in China, India, Brazil and other emerging markets. The irony of recent history is that the governments of these countries had, for decades, opposed the world-market-oriented policies that are now proving so successful. At the same time, it is well understood that the model of western consumerism they are following is not sustainable. The en­vironmental challenges are real, and climate change is a global concern. In 2008, moreover, a global financial crisis proved that financial markets can go badly wrong. The evidence showed that western policymakers’ over-reliance on markets had become unsustainable even in economic terms.

No doubt, the global challenges are huge. For good reason, Germany’s
development ministry geared policy increasingly towards issues of global governance in the first decade of the new millennium. It turns out that its name was aptly chosen right in the beginning. The BMZ was always the Ministry for Economic Cooperation – and never just an aid ministry.