Civic mindedness

Scope for action

On behalf of Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Engagement Global is supporting the developmental efforts of civil-society organisations and is facilitating international exchange. In an interview with Hans Dembowski, Jens Kreuter, the chief executive, elaborated on how this government agency operates.
weltwärts volunteer in Tanzania. Welsing / Engagement Global weltwärts volunteer in Tanzania.

Governments of various developing countries and emerging markets are increasingly restricting the space for civil society. They argue that civil-society organisations are serving western interests. Engagement Global supports this kind of organisation internationally. How do you respond to the criticism?

The human rights are our only guideline in our promotion of civil-society organisations, local-government agencies and schools. Beyond the human rights, we have no other agenda, though we do commit to internationally accepted agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals, which the UN General Assembly recently endorsed unanimously. The list of human rights has similarly been adopted by the UN, and most countries have signed up to the relevant conventions. Accordingly, we do not consider the human rights to be western in any relevant way. The human rights are universal. Organisations that apply for our support must appreciate them, and they must accept pluralism. By the way, we provide funds to some organisations in Germany even though they are quite critical of our Federal Government.

You are disbursing government money, so one would assume that you are pursuing government interests.

Well, in Germany and Europe, we have experienced that the unrestricted exchange of opinions is most valuable, and so is vivid popular participation in public affairs. Both facilitate democratic decision making and peaceful resolution of disputes. In other words, they facilitate peace and political stability. Free exchange between nations safeguards peace in a similar sense. For the Federal Government, peace is a top priority, and that marks our mission. We are not serving any other German interests, not even economic ones. For the same reasons, we want your team at D+C/E+Z to create a credible forum for debate on our behalf. We have not assigned you to praise our government's global-development policies. We know that open and serious debate benefits all parties concerned. If however, a government does not respect human rights, it is true that we criticise its stance. That government, however, is opposing universally accepted principles. 

You have a PhD in Protestant theology. Doesn't that tell radical Muslims that you have a missionary's agenda?

No, that would be a big mistake. Every human being has a set of values. Mine is explicit, and that compels me to handle my own belief system with sensitivity and make sure that funding decisions are not marked by my personal bias. I also have a degree in law, which is a qualification typical of chief executives. Moreover, the BMZ does not rely on us for managing its cooperation with the churches. There are other institutions for doing so, and they do not support any missionary work either. The BMZ only funds efforts that focus exclusively on development and are designed in a pluralistic way, not targeting only the members of any single faith.

Civil society is supposed to be independent of the state. Why does it need governmental support?

The BMZ has published an interesting booklet on the matter, its title is: “Strategy on government-civil society cooperation in post-2015 development policy”. An active civil society is obviously viable without government funding. We have such an active civil society in Germany. It includes sports clubs, neighbourhood self-help groups, church parishes, social initiatives, support groups for refugees and much more. All of this would happen without government intervention. Nonetheless, state support makes sense in some cases:

  • First of all, the government sometimes wants things to happen, which its own agencies cannot implement as well as non-governmental organisations can. The reasons are that NGOs have better access to target groups and are better placed to stimulate civic activism.
  • Second, it makes sense in developmental terms to support charities, which depend on donations, to plan long term and to implement more ambitious projects than they otherwise would be capable of. This kind of funding benefits their international partners.
  • Finally, we need transparency and reliability. Civil-society organisations must do solid accounting, they must be managed in a spirit of internal democracy, and they must be able to organise larger networks. Accordingly, it is appropriate to help them develop the capacities they need for these purposes.

Please give an example of what civil-society organisations are better at than state agencies. 

Well, consider our weltwärts programme. It allows young Germans to experience life in developing countries and emerging markets, and it allows young people from our partner countries to become active and learn in Germany. Our Federal Government believes that this kind of exchange is important because it boosts public understanding of international affairs. weltwärts volunteers are supposed to take part in daily life and witness social reality, and civil-society organisations are much better at making that happen than government agencies. The volunteers are not supposed to help implement government policies, after all, they are supposed to get an unfiltered idea of the country they are staying in. In a very fundamental sense, our mission is to give people scope for action and learning, but not to micro-manage what they do. We are not only serving the BMZ, which funds us; we are also serving civil society. 

Some civil-society activists from developing countries say they are uncomfortable with their non-governmental partners from the global north being more powerful. The difference is evident, among other things, in the fact that the northern-based NGOs have more money and get more government support. What can be done?

Well, in the first place I'd say that it is good when such dissatisfaction is expressed. It shows that people are considering matters. Once doubt is cast on something, fruitful discussion becomes possible. It is true that there is a power difference, and it is not easy to change this fact. We are weighing options however. What is certainly needed is to boost the spirit of partnership, transparency and mutual accountability as envisioned in the UN 2030 Agenda to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Jens Kreuter is the chief executive of Engagement Global.


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