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Development Aid

Is German development aid policy out of date and out of touch?

Is German development aid policy fit for the 21st century? Politicians from Africa and Germany have been discussing controversial changes to the traditional donor-recipient model.

At a recent forum on globalization in Germany's development ministry in Berlin, even a cursory glance at the list of speakers showed that German development aid policy is contemplating radical transformation. Politicians and representatives of private industry were on the speakers' list while development aid organizations were mostly absent.

Critics of traditional German development aid include Horst Köhler, the former German president. The economist and Africa specialist was the keynote speaker at the forum and was the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2000 to 2004 and the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) from 1998 to 2000. He believes that practitioners of traditional German development aid policy tend to try and fend off criticism of their work by emphasizing their good intentions and that it would be good for development aid policy to be "exposed to the biting winds of the present day."

Köhler added that the West has lost credibility in Africa by making political mistakes while at the same time Africa is gaining in self-confidence. Africans are no longer prepared to go begging in the West. They want to do things their own way. They welcome support, but want to shape their future themselves. Köhler said he hears such sentiments expressed frequently in Africa these days.

Deutschland Verleihung des Deutschen Nationalpreises an Neil MacGregor Rede Köhler (Getty Images/AFP/J. Macdougall)

Horst Köhler has doubts about applying the term "Marshall Plan" to Africa

Köhler said the West must listen to Africa more closely. Only then will it be possible draw up development aid programs that really meet the needs of the recipient countries.   

"When the deciding factor is not that which gives Africa sustainable assistance, but that which reduces the number of Africans arriving on our shores, then that has nothing in common with effective development aid policy," he said.

The right plan?

Köhler has his misgivings about the proposed "Marshall Plan with Africa" being promoted by German Development Minister Gerd Müller. The term Marshall Plan goes back to the days of "those above and those below, of victors and the vanquished," Köhler said. 

Müller's strategy document lists suggestions for cooperation between Africa and Europe and Köhler believes that - the name "Marshall Plan" notwithstanding - many of them deserve support, including closer cooperation with private industry. 

Köhler hopes that the aversion felt by certain sections of the development aid community to the private sector can be overcome.

"Where can the millions of jobs that African economies need be created if not in the private sector?" Köhler asked.

Gerd Müller in Afrika (picture alliance/dpa/H. Hans)

Development Minister Müller in conversation with farmers in Nigeria during a 2014 visit

But cooperation with the private sector is controversial. Critics say firms view Africa first and foremost as a potential market. Civil society representatives accuse foreign firms - German companies included - of land grabbing or paying local labor low and exploitative wages.

But at the Berlin globalization forum, Benin's minister for planning, Bio Tchane, was vociferous in his support for the private sector.

"If I could bring ten German companies to Benin, I would be more than happy today. I would prefer that to a 10 percent increase in the ODA [Official Development Assistance] from Mr Müller," Tchane said, describing Germany's aid plan as "an excellent initiative."                 

Tchane cautioned that not every African country was ready for this new form of cooperation with the West.

Müller - who was also a speaker at the forum - said the plan depended on both sides stepping up their commitment to African development.

"Africa itself must do more. The African states must be in a better position to meet their own demands and expectations themselves," Müller said.

Two Africas?

Tchane added that politically and economic there were two Africas "one Africa is the Africa of Senegal, Benin or Namibia. Then there are also states like Gabon or Burundi."

Benin Porto Novo Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, Kandidat Präsidentschaftswahl (Getty Images/AFP/C. Placide)

Bio Tchane, seen here at political rally in Porto Novo, says there are "two Africas"

Tchane was differentiating between reform-minded states that are prepared to take tough decisions and others that can drift towards complacency.

"If prices for oil and minerals are high, everything seems to be OK. But when prices fall, they suddenly start discovering new strategies," he said.

But amid all the intense debate in Berlin, there were still big question marks hanging over the future of Germany's cooperation with Africa. Germany goes to the polls in September after which there will be a new government. Nobody can say who the next German development minister will be. 

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