Words have different implications in different political contexts

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by Hans Dembowski

Why “Marshall Plan” is a contentious term

Gerd Müller, Germany’s federal minister for economic cooperation and development, wants to launch a “Marshall Plan with Africa”. The idea is to boost development in a major coherent effort, involving many governments as well as the private sector and civil society. Some potential African partners, however, object to the term “Marshall Plan”. They consider it a misnomer that indicates a bossy attitude.

According to Martial De-Paul Ikounga, the AU commissioner for human resources, science and technology, any item called “Marshall Plan” must not be on the AU agenda. In his view, the term is misleading and patronising. Job Shipululo Amupanda, vice dean of the University of Namibia’s economics department, agrees. He says the term denies African agency and is thus an expression of imperialist attitudes. Several African participants raised similar concerns at a conference that the Development and Peace Foundation (sef: Stiftung Entwicklung und Frieden) hosted in Potsdam this month. I’ll summarise their arguments in three points:

  • Africa is not a continent that needs to be rebuilt after a world war.
  • Africa’s colonial past is one reason for poverty and dysfunctional governance today, so the continent deserves to be compensated, not showered with charity.
  • African development must be driven by African ownership.

The debate in Potsdam basically focused on the name of Müller’s proposal, not its substance, which is still under discussion, not least because input from international partners, including African ones, is required. The debate in Potsdam showed that words can have very different implications in different political contexts. What “Marshall Plan” means, varies from country to country.

To Germans, the connotations are positive. The Marshall Plan facilitated the “economic miracle”, West Germany’s fast and tremendously successful reconstruction after World War II. It was perceived as an undeserved blessing. After all, the USA was helping the very people who had started the war and caused tremendous suffering.

In Britain and France, the perspective was different. The Marshall Plan was support from an ally, not the former enemy. Nations that had been liberated from German occupation similarly felt that US funding was an expression of solidarity.

Of course, the Marshall Plan served strategic interests in the context of the Cold War. In retrospect, however, Europeans on either side of the former Iron Curtain consider it to have promoted liberty and prosperity. It is not seen as an instrument of oppression. Germany’s KfW development bank, by the way, was spawned by the Marshall Plan. It is obviously a tool of German, not American policy-making today.

When German policymakers speak of a Marshall Plan, they are thinking of an undeserved economic miracle and indicate they want to unleash something similar. When Africans hear the term, they think of a foreign power calling the shots. Moreover, they feel entitled to compensation for past atrocities. To German ears, however, the term makes sense – especially as Müller is speaking of a Marshall Plan WITH Africa, not one FOR Africa. Either way, however, the term seems overbearing to Africans.

As a German leader facing an election in the autumn, Müller is likely to stick to the term for all domestic purposes. At the international level, however, it might make sense to recall that George Marshall, the US secretary of state, never launched a plan that was named after him. The official title was “European Recovery Program”. It indicated European ownership right from the start. Today, an African Development Programme might be acceptable accordingly.


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