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Aid history

“Political and democratic values”

by Hans-Peter Repnik
Hans-Peter Repnik on a health-care mission in Peru in 1991

Hans-Peter Repnik on a health-care mission in Peru in 1991

From 1989 to 1994, Hans-Peter Repnik, a Christian Democrat, was the parliamentary state secretary at the Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ). During his term, East Germany collapsed, and the UN Conference on Environment and Development was held in Rio de Janeiro. Interview with Hans-Peter Repnik

In 1989, the Cold War suddenly ended. Did that open new doors to development policymakers?
Yes, it certainly did, because we could no longer be played off against anyone else. As a result, we were able to speak more openly and negotiate more stringently. At the same time, there were some concerns – especially in Africa, but in Asia and Latin America too – that our international developmental efforts might decline. After all, Germany faced new challenges with reunification, and so did Europe in general with the legacy of failed socialism. I remember holding speeches abroad, reassuring our partners that Germany would not cut BMZ funds. And that was true.

At the time, the BMZ began to use new political criteria to assess partners. What was that about?
We decided back then that, to qualify for cooperation, our partners should fulfil five criteria.
– Their governance should be okay.
– They should respect human rights.
– The people should be involved in decision-­making.
– There should be rule of law, not least in regard to foreign investors because they matter for development.
– Finally, government action in general should be geared to development.
These criteria were highly controversial. We discussed them at length with civil-society organisations as well as international partners.

The World Bank adopted its good governance policies later. The concept was most clearly spelled out in the Bank’s World Development Report of 1997. Fighting corruption became a priority internationally – but that had not been the BMZ’s focus.
It’s true that we did not explicitly make combating corruption a criterion. But the issue was, of course, implied. And our criteria became something of a model. After initial debates, for instance, the EU took a similar approach, so development dialogue takes into account political and democratic values today.

Aside from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the greatest single event during your tenure was the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. What did it mean for you?
The one and a half years of preparation were as exciting as the conference itself. As the BMZ’s parliamentary state secretary, I was the deputy leader of the German delegation at the time; the leader was Environment Minister Klaus Töpfer. The conference was not an easy sell. We had to work hard to get reluctant governments both from rich nations and developing countries to play a constructive role. And even though he did not get much public praise for doing so, Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl played a major role in making things happen.

What exactly did he do?
When it became obvious that the USA was reluctant to start binding negotiations on climate protection, Kohl flew to the States for a weekend to discuss the matter with President George Bush Senior. He managed to convince Bush that the conference was necessary. Once he had done that, it became easier to get the Japanese on board too. Japan was another sceptical nation. I was personally involved in three rounds of negotiations in Tokyo.

Today, a lot of people are frustrated because multilateral climate policymaking seems stuck 20 years after the promising start in Rio de Janeiro.
A certain sense of disappointment is understandable, but resignation does not help anybody. The impression that nothing was achieved is wrong, moreover, and we have to make that clear. For instance, we introduced environmental impact assessments at the BMZ back then. The approach was innovative and controversial. Today, this kind of review is common for all multilateral development banks. Renewables have also grown tremendously. The summit in Rio made the term “sustainability” known around the world …

…  with the three dimensions of environmental sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability.
Exactly, and today I would add education; after all, you cannot shape society’s future without it. Rio achieved a lot, and I hope we will succeed in en­­gaging civil society and creating the same kind of enthusiasm we had back then for the upcoming Rio20+ summit.

You mean the UN’s Rio+20 conference that will take stock in May next year, once again in Rio?
Yes, but I speak of Rio20+ because we need to do more than consider the balance sheet of what has happened in the past 20 years. We have to look forward and discuss what needs to be done. Germany has a lot to offer in this respect, as buzzwords like “green economy” or “switching to renewables” prove. Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power, and the world is paying close attention – some of it very sceptical, some of it with a lot of admiration. If this grand experiment goes well, as I am sure it will, many other countries will reconsider their energy policies too.

But why is this an issue of development policy?
The Environment Ministry and the BMZ are Germany’s lead agencies for Rio20+. I have spoken at length with Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen and Development Minister Dirk Niebel, and I believe they are making excellent progress. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was environment minister in the 1990s, equally understands what is at stake. The BMZ can do a lot to promote these causes in its dialogue with partner countries, and it can offer technical and financial cooperation to follow up on discussions. It is a good thing that Niebel merged Germany’s big technical cooperation agencies into GIZ. His reform will contribute to making Germany’s voice heard more clearly. But I feel we need more momentum in civil society. Non-governmental organisations should tackle Rio20+ more aggressively. Among other things, their voices matter because not nearly all voters are aware of development issues. Once civil-society organisations put MPs’ feet to the fire, politicians understand they cannot get around these issues anymore.

50 years ago, Germany’s international reputation was awful – we were considered Nazis, war criminals and perpetrators of genocide. Germany’s image abroad has completely changed since then. The main reason is probably successful European integration, but did development policy play a role too?
Yes, I am sure it did. We treated our partners in developing countries as equals and took their specific cultures and histories seriously. Actually, we learned quite a bit from our Scandinavian neighbours, whose development efforts have been commendable for a long time. At the same time, we spelled out our values and were not shy about our interests either. But there was no hidden agenda in the sense of development cooperation serving as an indirect way to subsidise exports, for example. I’m sure our partners respect us because our development policy always focused on improving the standard of life in their country, not in ours.

Questions by Hans Dembowski.