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Global Ideas

“I take away more than I can give”

The energy revolution is dependent upon the transfer of knowledge. One idealistic teacher talks about his experiences in Iraq, Sudan and Vietnam.

Heinrich Graumann teaches renewable energy solutions at a vocational school in Vietnam. Previously he worked in Palestine, Sudan, Iraq and Tajikistan. He talked toGlobal Ideas about what makes an aid project a success - and tells us about a strange encounter in northern Iraq.

DW: Mr Graumann, after many years working in the Arab world, you now work in development aid in Vietnam. Have you experienced any culture shock?

Graumann: The differences are acute but it wasn‘t too terrible a shock for me personally. I’ve seen a lot of very different countries and cultures in my time. But of course it is very different from the Middle East.

Teaching renewable energy

Heinrich Graumann

DW: Why does Vietnam need development aid? It has been celebrated as an Asian tiger, i.e. it boasts a booming economy.

Graumann: In some areas you could describe Vietnam as an emerging nation, but the country has a population of 90 million and is home to 96 different ethnic groups so there are huge regional differences. It’s much the same in Thailand: If you only went to Bangkok you wouldn’t see why the country needed aid. It’s the same in Saigon and Hanoi. But by the time you get to rural areas – where I am – the knowledge transfer has petered out.

DW: You are based in Phan Rang, a city with a population of 100,000 in the south of the country. When we met in Jerusalem one year ago, you said you benefited from being in foreign countries more than they benefited from you!

Graumann: It’s similar here. Obviously that is a very subjective opinion – the idea that I take away more than I can give. But I think it’s fair to say that I’m socially integrated here, I believe I‘m well-liked and I get a lot of invitations. The biggest problem is of course the language barrier but I’ve been having Vietnamese lessons with a local teacher since August.

DW: Is that typical behaviour? The cliché image of the aid worker is someone who drives around in a great big white jeep, employs locals as servants and lives in a huge villa. And spends the evenings hanging out in ex-pat bars talking to other aid workers....

Graumann: That does exist but in moderation. You do meet the odd individual who thinks he or she has a monopoly on expertise and who shows up with a post-colonial attitude that is neither helpful nor necessary to teaching. If you want to be effective, you need to have a concept based on partnership and equal participation. That works very well. I’m the only foreigner in Phan Rang and I depend on the locals to get by.

DW: But there are exceptions?

Graumann: One of my worst experiences in development aid work was in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War, where I met someone who was responsible for rebuilding streets. He‘d set up court with employees and bodyguards and ruled over them like a king. The first time I visited him, he was seated on a sort of throne surrounded by his underlings, feeding raw meat to a bird of prey perched behind him. He made all sorts of racist remarks. He was sent home after people including myself complained about him. I’ve never experienced anything as bad since.

DW: Do you know what’s happened to your previous projects?

Graumann: I’m in touch with all of them. In terms of their sustainability – to use the fashionable term – they are ultimately dependent on the way they have been built up. That means that they must continue running even when the official expert has left. That entails training locals in the technology and using whatever resources are available in the country so they don‘t have to be bought from overseas at great expense.

DW: For example?

Graumann: I’m still fascinated by a project I did in Sudan in the late 1980’s. I arrived at a one-doctor hospital on the White Nile with a colleague and friend of mine, a Sudanese technician. The water supply had fallen apart a few years beforehand – there were old pumps dating back to the British colonial era and they stopped working. So the women would carry water in jugs from the White Nile to the hospital, covering considerable distances. It obviously wasn‘t very hygienic.

DW: And then?

Graumann: We asked around and soon established that there was in fact a functioning water supply network and even a well where you could find water at a depth of 30 meters even in the dry season. So we rebuilt the network with a hybrid system comprised of the local electricity supply, an emergency diesel generator, a solar unit and a submersible pump bought at the local market. Then we made a 6-cubic-meter tank which we installed on a scaffold with the help of camels and rope pulls. After a few weeks there was fresh, clean water again. We had a big party before we left! And the system is till working today.

Interview: Martin Reeh /jp
Editor: Sumi Somaskanda