Central Africa is a testing ground for German development minister | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 08.01.2010
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Central Africa is a testing ground for German development minister

New German Development Minister Dirk Niebel has begun a one-week trip to Central Africa. Deutsche Welle asked experts just how effective aid has been in the region up to now, and whether changes are necessary.

Dirk Niebel

Economic cooperation is also part of Niebel's portfolio

Dirk Niebel's visit to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique is his first official foreign trip since taking office.

It is being seen by many as a litmus test of the intentions of the Liberal Democrat, who has vowed to bring about a fundamental shift of German policy.

Just a few days before his departure the development minister sparked controversy with his remarks that he did not see the ministry as a "benefit office for the world." This and other comments clearly indicated that he also saw his remit as representing German business interests abroad.

The fact that the Liberals (FDP) have been put in charge of this portfolio had already raised many eyebrows. During coalition talks, the party had called for the complete abolition of the post and its integration into the foreign ministry.

The right continent

Logo of Misereor with the aid organization written in German under its name

German church aid agencies, such as Misereor, are active in central Africa

But the dust raised in press reports at the beginning of the week now appears to have settled - for the time being at least. Experts have welcomed Niebel's decision to choose Africa as the destination for his first official trip abroad and acknowledged that there is considerable room for improvement in aid strategy.

Raoul Bagopha of Misereor told Deutsche Welle that his organization was reassured that the German development ministry was still primarily concerned with helping the needy, rather than pursuing economic interests.

"We believe that German aid should be focused on Africa because Africa, in particular, is suffering. It is a good choice. We welcome the fact that this reflects a continuation in thinking," said Bagopha, who coordinates the program for Central Africa for Misereor, the overseas development aid agency of the Catholic Church.

A more holistic approach to development could also benefit Africa, according to Cornelia Fuellkrug-Weitzel, head of Brot fuer die Welt, an aid organization run by Germany's protestant churches. "The churches have long demanded coherence. In the past our own economic actions have had a damaging effect on Africa," she told Deutsche Welle.

Change of paradigm

Political scientist Salua Nour greeted the focus on Africa, and the signs of a radical shift in policy. "The new approach is that we have to move away from the idea of social assistance. It is a very good, very logical conclusion drawn from the results of the last 30 years," she told Deutsche Welle.

"A lot of this money has just drained away into the government or the governing elite. Now the private sector has to be mobilized - both in the donor and recipient countries. I think that more will come from this approach," said Nour, an Africa specialist at Berlin's Free University.

The fact that Niebel has chosen Africa for his debut visit is, of course, no coincidence. There have already been signs that Germany is moving to switch aid away from emerging economies, such as China, and concentrate its efforts on the world's poorest nations.

A fishing boat tied to a rescue ship with 44 African immigrants on board is seen arriving at the port of San Sebastian de La Gomera, on the Spanish Canary Island of La Gomera

African migrants continue to try to make the dangerous crossing to Europe

And with the number of migrants from Africa growing, it is in the European Union's interest to do more to tackle the problems at its own back door.

"Africa is our closest neighbor and the continent where we have to do the most as far as fighting poverty is concerned and helping Africa to help itself. I would therefore like to gain an impression of our work and the situation in three important partner countries," said the minister ahead of the trip.

Shared histories, different presents

What all three nations on Niebel's agenda have in common are their experience of years of bitter civil war and fighting. However, they are at very different phases of reconstruction and development. Rwanda and DRC may be neighbors, but they, in particular, are in many ways miles apart.

UN staff distribute aid

Violence has forced millions of Congolese to flee their homes

Abounding in diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and zinc, the Democratic Republic of Congo is blessed in terms of natural resources. As well as being extremely wealthy, it is very big. The third biggest state in Africa, it is roughly the same size as western Europe.

However, the country's natural riches have seldom been harnessed for the benefit of the people of the DRC. And despite the democratic elections in 2006 and the peace deal between the Congolese goverment and rebels in 2008, lawlessness and conflict continue to blight the east of the country.

"It is always difficult wherever war and civil war-like situations exist and government does not extend throughout the country. Development aid will always suffer setbacks in those circumstances," said Simone Pott, press spokeswoman for Welthungerhilfe, a German NGO.

Read more on how Germany can help in Africa

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