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Aid history

“The golden era could have begun right then”

by Erhard Eppler
Willy Brandt and Erhard Eppler

Willy Brandt and Erhard Eppler

Erhard Eppler of the Social Democrat Party’s left wing was the Federal Republic’s development minister from 1968 to 1974. He told Hans Dembowski about his time in office in an interview.

What did you want to achieve as development minister?
In the western world, the early 1970s were marked by a sense of determination and optimism, different from all earlier and later periods. We were convinced that we could end world hunger by the year 2000. Not only I thought so, so did my colleagues in other countries as well as Robert McNamara, who was the World Bank president. We met regularly for conferences and got along well. We all shared the same goal, and we were struggling with similar challenges at home.

How did you intend to beat poverty – through welfare-state policies?
No, that would have meant interfering in the domestic affairs of young, but nonetheless proudly independent nations. Terms like “fragile state”, “failing state” or even “failed state” had not been coined yet, whereas today, troubled statehood is probably the greatest challenge of all. Back then, most governments of developing countries were relying on the old colonial administrations, which were operating quite well. The International Monetary Fund had not yet subjected these countries to structural adjustments, which were meant to result in lean states but often led to anorexic states. No, the governments of developing countries did not discuss welfare issues with us – nor other domestic issues, for that matter. At the time, we thought that agricultural development, for example, was strategically important, and that regional planning should boost it. That is what we wanted to support – with training programmes, better infrastructure and so on.

And what kind of issues were you struggling with at home?
In my first years as development minister, my work mostly consisted in making sure I got the jurisdictions I needed. When I became the head of the Ministry for Economic Cooperation (BMZ) in 1968, it was the lead agency for technical cooperation – a mere 25 % of our official development assistance. Nonetheless, we had to coordinate every single decision in low-level inter-ministerial committees with the other ministries. The hardest struggle was the one with the Ministry for Economic Affairs. It was in charge of capital aid, which was what we call financial cooperation today. I only got the juris­diction over capital aid in early 1973, and from that date on one can truly speak of a full-fledged ministry.

Why was this particular jurisdiction so important?
Well, first of all, a lot of money was involved. Capital aid was by far the biggest chunk of our official development assistance. Moreover, the officers at the Ministry for Economic Affairs were prone to consider the interests of German industries. Don’t get me wrong: exports matter a lot, and the West German economy was strong in that field, which was good. But my point was that we never spent even one per cent of our export revenues on aid, so I did not want to further boost German exports with aid money. I wanted this money to serve exclusively the needs of developing countries. If you like, I’ll tell you a short anecdote to illustrate the matter.

Yes, please do.
I once asked the finance minister of a desperately poor Sahel country what his country needed most. He said it urgently needed a wireless information network. That was the most up-to-date technology at the time. Later that evening, after a few glasses of wine, he told me that people from the Ministry of Economic Affairs had said that he would get that kind of infrastructure from a German company if he demanded it. That was the mindset I wanted to put an end to. I wanted my subordinates to consider the impact of a project on our partner countries – and nothing else.

Does a development minister need the support of the federal chancellor, the head of the government?
Well, Chancellor Willy Brandt let me know early on that he appreciated my intentions, but he did not become actively engaged. He also let me know early on that he would not start a fight with Karl Schiller, who was the minister of economic affairs and had a splendid reputation. That is why the Division for Capital Aid was only transferred from the Ministry for Economic Affairs to the BMZ after the general election of 1972, when Schiller was no longer in the cabinet.

After resigning as chancellor, Brandt became the head of the high-profile Independent Commission for International Developmental Issues, which submitted its so-called Brandt Report to the UN in 1980. Didn’t some kind of interest of his developing countries become obvious earlier?
I’ll tell you something only few people know. Brandt travelled to North Africa in 1974, and he had a long conversation with Houarie Boumédiènne, who was the Algerian president and the leader of the Group of 77 at the time. After returning, Brandt told me: “Erhard, I’ve understood. Let’s start working to­gether.” The golden era of German development policy could have begun right then – but he had to resign a few days later. The next chancellor was Helmut Schmidt, who did not take much interest in development issues, so I resigned pretty soon too.

Chancellor Willy Brandt and Foreign Minister Walter Scheel ran a coalition of the Social Democrats with the Free Democrats. It is most remembered for its détente policy towards the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. To what extent did the East-West conflict shape German development policy?
Especially in the 1960s, this conflict was the defining issue, and the consequences lasted for a very long time. The Hallstein Doctrine demanded that we only cooperate with countries that did not entertain diplomatic relations with the Democratic Republic in East Germany. Pretty soon that was understood in the sense of having to cooperate with all countries that might start relations with East Germany to prevent them from doing so. The result was a spectacular fragmentation of development efforts. That was the consequence of trying to engage as many countries as possible. From a developmental point of view, that fragmentation did not make sense, but the priorities were set by the Foreign Office in the 1960s. That is why Germany’s developmental programmes became so piecemeal, and it was impossible to undue the mess fast because it is a sensitive matter to discontinue cooperation once it has started.

During your term in office, the GTZ, which has now become the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), was established. What were your motives?
At the time, we had two institutions, the GAWI and the BfE, that were involved in technical cooperation. An expert report from the Federal Audit Office proposed setting up a new federal bureaucracy. But I didn’t want to do that. Even though I was a left-wing Social Democrat, I preferred a private-sector enterprise. I wanted this company to work on assignment from my ministry, but I thought it should also get assignments from other parties in order to use its capacities to the greatest effect, and make some money too. One consideration was that the Federal Government was putting pressure on oil exporting countries in the Middle East to assume more international responsibility. And indeed, the GTZ did not only work on our behalf, it also got assignments from governments in the Middle East – and later from the EU and other international partners too. All in all, the GTZ has stood the test of time.