“A solid shared roof”
Interview with Gabriela Büssemaker
What is civil society, how do you define the term?
Civil society results from people making use of their fundamental democratic rights such as the freedoms of expression, assembly and association. Civil society includes quite diverse institutions. Churches are an example, but so are sports clubs, industry associations or trade unions. Non-governmental organisations of all kinds leave their mark on social life. They promote social integration, and many individuals belong to more than a single organisation. Moreover, these organisations contribute to public opinion in two ways. They become involved in the issues that matter to their members, and they interact with other organisations. A lively civil society helps to forge compromise and consensus in society, bridging diverse interests.
Please give an example.
Take education, for instance. In Germany, many different interest groups take part in policymaking in this field. Curricula in schools and universities are not simply issued by some minister or bureaucrat; they evolve in constant interaction with civil society. Parents, business, churches, trade unions – all argue their points. And our federal system allows us to test different models in different states. Other areas of policymaking similarly rely on feedback from civil society; consider labour regulations or environmental protection for instance.
Why does civil society have an impact on development?
Ultimately, this is about political stability, personal freedom and the pursuit of happiness. I think the relevance of people organising themselves cannot be overemphasised. Wherever civil society activism is unrestricted, people will take their fate into their own hands. Freedom of expression means that they can share what bothers them as well as what they are pleased with. Freedom of association means that they can join forces in order to achieve something.
What role do German civil society organisations play in international development? They are sure to understand Germany, but they don’t really know rural life in Asia, Africa or Latin America.
I think they matter for two reasons. First of all, they contribute to making the German public aware of issues that pertain to international development. If nobody takes interest, these matters will not be discussed. But it is necessary that people in Germany consider issues of global relevance such as poverty, justice or climate change. It is valuable, therefore, that German citizens take interest and put relevant issues on the agenda.
You said there were two reasons, what is the other one?
It is probably even more important. Non-governmental organisations are in a much better position to support civil society engagement in foreign countries than government bureaucracies are. Typically, the crucial point is that people don’t place their hopes in some kind of nanny state; they have to pursue their interests and will sometimes have to put pressure on government institutions. Civil society organisations normally interact at eyelevel across borders. They are versatile and dynamic. Of course, they are not only involved in politics. Social affairs – charity, arts, culture, education, sports – all matter as well.
What services does your new agency, ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL, offer German civil society organisations that wish to become involved in development cooperation?
We are the central contact point and service provider. We inform people about development affairs, which is why we commission you to edit D+C/E+Z in two languages and thus promote international networking. But beyond such political education, we inform people about tangible and meaningful ways of getting involved. We give advice on how to apply for funds or how to run evaluations. We allow people to learn more and to network with others. We are part of relevant networks ourselves, thanks to our long established partnerships with civil society organisations and municipal governments.
If civil society is about citizens organising themselves, why do such organisations need government support at all?
Well, actually it is the other way around. Development policy needs broad public support. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development does not serve special interests, so it does not have powerful lobbies. At the same time, development affairs are quite complicated. Citizens face daunting challenges when they want to contribute to the welfare of far-away places where infrastructure is poor and people don’t get much education. Therefore it makes sense for the government to join forces with civil society. And our job is to facilitate such cooperation.
Your mission also includes support for municipal engagement, but don’t municipal authorities exercise government powers?
According to a popular saying from the USA, all politics is local. And indeed, the local level is where citizens first and directly encounter the state. Accordingly, this is the level at which civil society is prone to have the greatest impact. In highly developed countries like ours, state and civil society tend to cooperate so closely that they are actually shaped by one another to a great extent. In less developed and poorer world regions, things tend to be different. In many places, the old colonial order lives on in relevant ways, for instance, when government agencies use English or French, even though the people they are supposed to serve speak Hausa, Swahili or Tamil. At the local level it matters in particular that civil servants and policymakers engage with civil society. They must not shield themselves from citizens and only serve their particular clientele. Wherever there is democratic accountability, it starts at the local level.
How can ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL contribute to improving matters?
We put German municipal bodies in touch with their counterparts in partner countries. We support capacity development on both sides. Twinning cities is really quite effective. As I already pointed out in regard to civil society, interaction at eyelevel is crucial. No one can advise mayors more convincingly than people who know their responsibilities from personal experience. And mind you, such exchange is beneficial for the German side too, helping Germans to understand better the situation of refugees and migrants, for instance.
ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL is also running programmes such as Weltwärts and ASA, which target young Germans. How does that fit in?
It makes sense because young people are in their formative years. What they experience today will shape their views for their whole lifetime. Young people with an understanding of development affairs will enlighten their peers, and serve as ambassadors for development in the long run.
How is ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL different from the GIZ, German International Cooperation, the agency that ran most of your programmes up to last year?
The GIZ is the major implementing agency of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. Its staff is typically active at high government levels. Our organisation is smaller and more versatile. We are closer to the ground. Of course, we serve the Ministry too. But our mission is to build bridges to civil society and municipal governments. The programmes we are running – just consider the Agency Communities in One World – have proven their worth and expertise. ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL provides them with a solid shared roof. And if citizens in Germany wish to learn more about us and development affairs, they are welcome to call us free of charge. The number of our info phone in Germany is 0800 188 7 188.